Above all, Compliance is a sadistic exercise in deliberate, relentless unpleasantness, but to what purpose does writer-director Craig Zobel put the audience through their squirm-inducing paces? Presumably, the film, which details a prank phone call turned sexual assault at an Ohio fast-food restaurant, is meant to comment on the all-powerful nature of official authority (whether real or imagined) and to force the viewer to question his or her own potential response to the situation. But Zobel’s unwillingness to push his inquiry beyond its most basic formulation, his compromising of the setup by playing his hand too early, and his misguided positioning of the viewer in relation to the material ensures that the only challenge the film provides is on the level of audience endurance.
The movie begins, after a few this-is-Middle-America establishing shots, with Chick-Wich manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) arriving at her fast-food establishment for the evening shift, only to be upbraided by a supplier for her improper handling of a recent incident in which an employee left open a refrigerator door and spoiled $15,000 worth of food. Her authority thus challenged, she enters the restaurant to prepare for a busy Friday night, but no sooner has she started work than the phone rings and a man claiming to be a police officer informs her that one of her employees, a pretty teenager named Becky (Dreama Walker), has been caught stealing from a customer and that he, the cop, has the whole thing on surveillance tape. He instructs Sandra to take Becky to the back of the store and search her; Sandra, already cowed by an authority figure earlier in the evening and, perhaps wanting to assert her own managerial clout, reluctantly agrees.
Over the course of the film’s running time, the caller’s demands escalate and, perhaps given the glib certainty with which he speaks (coupled with some few background details he drops about the people involved), or perhaps simply because of his presumed official status, Sandra performs every task he asks, often involving other employees—and even her boyfriend—in the demands of the voice on the other end of the receiver. By Compliance‘s conclusion, Becky has been stripped naked, humiliated, and sexually violated, and we’re made to writhe through every sickening minute of it.
It seems as if Zobel wants to implicate the audience in these proceedings, but he doesn’t have a very clear idea how to go about it. Yes, we’re forced to watch in impotent horror at what goes on while Walker bares her breasts and humiliates herself for no great purpose, but we’re also placed in a superior position to the characters, one in which it’s easy to condemn their blind obedience to the caller on the phone. The characters are all presented as essentially decent people, but, despite a few scenes of casual banter at the film’s beginning, there’s no attempt to get us to identify with these people. So when we watch the scene unfold, rather than saying, “If I were in Sandra’s position, I might have done the same,” we’re more likely to conclude, “These people are idiots, how can they not see through this prank caller?”—an attitude that only intensifies through Zobel’s misguided decision to reveal to the audience early on that the caller isn’t an actual cop (thus further distancing us from the characters’ viewpoint) and the increasingly ludicrous nature of the caller’s sick requests.
Which brings us to Zobel’s trump card, the fact that, as an opening title informs us, the film is “inspired by true events”—and calls on a corresponding handheld faux-doc aesthetic. So no matter how implausibly the drama unfolds (and for all its relentlessness, its dramatic enacting is never very believably presented), the film can hide behind the fact that not only did this actually happen, but, as a closing title informs us, it occurred over 70 times at various locations throughout the United States. All of which is presumably meant to validate Zobel’s bad-faith manipulations, ignoring the fact that whenever you present material in a non-documentary format, it becomes fiction and whether or not it really “happened” is irrelevant. All that matters is how it unfolds on screen and what purpose it serves.
In the case of Compliance, it serves very little, even as Zobel makes a few feeble efforts to complicate the material. His weakest attempt to add depth to the story is to offer up the simplistic irony of the caller being a good family man with a young daughter. Of slightly more interest are the varying degrees of culpability of the several characters who interact with Becky in the Chick-Wich backroom, from Sandra, who in the film’s conclusion denies all responsibility for what happened, to Becky’s young co-worker, Kevin (Philip Ettinger), who refuses to perform the sexual violations demanded by the caller, but who also does nothing to stop the situation.
Everyone’s responsible in the end, including, presumably, the viewer (and maybe even Becky, who’s initially presented as something of a slut, chatting with co-workers about juggling boyfriends and sexting). But if Zobel thinks he’s implicated or challenged his audience simply by making us watch unpleasant acts that, given the fact that we can’t actually enter the screen and stop what’s going on, we’re powerless to do anything about, than he’s as clueless as his characters who quiver at the slightest hint of official influence. No one need tremble at Zobel’s own directorial authority though. He’s shown throughout Compliance that, in a movie full of misrepresentations, that conceit is the biggest sham of all.