Film review: Compliance (15)

Dreama Walker is the waitress forced to endure a series of indignities at the hands of a hoax caller
Dreama Walker is the waitress forced to endure a series of indignities at the hands of a hoax caller
Share this article
Have your say

THINGS that make me uncomfortable: nudist beaches, people who admire the feminist message of Madonna, and now Compliance.

Compliance (15)

Director: Craig Zobel

Running time: 105 minutes

Star rating: * * * *

Unlike the other two, however, I’m starting to wonder if I also rather like Craig Zobel’s uneasy, edgy little drama.

As the film opens, a middle-aged fast-food restaurant manager named Sandra (Ann Dowd) is already stressed. Someone forgot to close the freezer the night before, ruining the contents, and a non-delivery of bacon means she’s left understocked for the day. As her staff arrive, it’s clear that Sandra gets little respect from her co-workers: when she attempts to bond with two girls by telling them what a great sex life she has with her beat-up trucker boyfriend, she doesn’t walk away fast enough and gets to hear them snigger about lumpy old Sandra getting worked up over “sexting”.

By the way, Dowd is terrific throughout the film, first when struggling to establish authority, later when perplexed by a phonecall. It’s a policeman, claiming one of the sniggerers has stolen some money. He wants Becky (Dreama Walker) isolated in the stockroom and watched. Later, he asks Sandra and her co-workers to strip and search her. Then he orders other indignities. If they refuse to comply, he will have Becky arrested. Even if you hadn’t heard of psychologists Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram and their obedience tests, you’d spot that Com­pliance is homing in on how far people will go in following orders. Sandra is hesitant at first, then flattered by phone compliments that don’t often come her way. Eventually, she is an ally.

Early on the film reveals that – of course – the caller isn’t a policeman but a hoaxer, who fixes himself a sandwich while pushing Sandra and her co-workers into perpetrating escalating humiliations on Becky. Broadly, it’s a study in gullibility, and you may well ask why no-one tried to check out the policeman’s story. I did. You may even be inclined to dismiss Compliance as a creepy bit of movie sadism, too dramatically manipulative to be endured. Why don’t these people know their legal rights and police procedure? Doesn’t anyone watch Cops or CSI? Actually one of the restaurant workers (Philip Ettinger) does resist, but he seems unable to persuade anyone else.

Compliance loosely resembles a Neil LaBute drama in the sense you would happily chew through an arm if you could escape watching the cruelty of the characters onscreen. The crucial difference is that Zobel doesn’t have the mean-mindedness of LaBute’s Your Friends & Neighbours or The Company of Men. Compliance is empathetic about weakness, insecurity and fallibility. LaBute’s films are usually just ruthlessly, needlessly vindictive.

Worse, at both the beginning and the end, Compliance points out that it is based on a true story – actually, a series of around 70 incidents, one of which happened in an American McDonald’s. Names and locations have been changed, and it was also made without consulting the real-life victim of the Louisiana case depicted here. This may provide some small comfort if you decide not to believe something as unpleasant and ignorant as Compliance could happen in the way depicted by Zobel. Is his film simplistic? Deterministic? I think that’s part of the neatness: most of the characters don’t ask enough questions, but the film’s audience end up boiling with them. The one indisputable fact is that this is a squirmy watch – but of course, it is supposed to be. «

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot

On general release from Friday