Spare, sparse, and morally upsetting, Compliance is an uncanny and unblinking examination of how far some people will go to follow the demands of a perceived authority figure, even as those demands escalate to unimaginable levels. Beginning with the phrase “Inspired by True Events” in block lettering that fills the screen, the film reveals itself as a profoundly honest docudrama with naturalistic, courageous performances.
Sandra (Ann Dowd, Garden State) and Becky (Dreama Walker) are manager and teenage employee at ChickWich, a fast food chain. Caught in the midst of a bustling shift and lacking in bacon and pickles, Sandra receives a call from Officer Daniels (Pat Healy, Rescue Dawn, Great World of Sound), who claims that Becky has stolen money from a customer’s purse and, eventually, that she is involved in a drug conspiracy. According to Daniels, Becky must be strip-searched.
Daniels is passive-aggressive and swings from vicious verbal brutality to gentle affirmation and sympathy. He connects with the overworked and under-appreciated Sandra, who is belittled and mocked by her younger, more attractive employees. Dowd is impressively compelling in a role that requires uncertainty, resolve, frustration, confusion, and responsibility in equal measure.
Writer-director Craig Zobel’s screenplay is effective at exploring the murky corners of a nasty exercise and illustrating the potential for manipulation in such a setting. The score is riddled with shrill strings and wonky rhythms, contributing to an atmosphere of unease and discomfort.
The sickening revelation at the end of the film – the extent of humiliation and abuse perpetrated on an innocent young woman by multiple average citizens because of a desire to obey – resounds with a thud. Then ten simple words appear: “Over 70 similar incidents were reported in 30 US states.” The initial gulp becomes a quiet fury.
In addition to the somewhat preposterous aspects of the premise, despite its true-story origins, there are some unfortunate lapses in commitment – I would have loved to see a version in which Zobel’s camera never left the restaurant – that would have otherwise elevated the film. Nevertheless, Compliance remains a convincing calling card for Zobel, an affirmative showpiece for Dowd, and, most importantly, a sobering reminder to ask the most haunting question of all: Why?