I missed Compliance during its theatrical run, and had to wait for the DVD release to finally see what the hell everybody was talking about. I finally got caught up last night. What. The. Fuck…..
Written and directed by Craig Zobel, Compliance tells the story of a phone call made to Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager of a fast food restaurant, during one of her shifts. The caller (Pat Healy) identifies himself as Office Daniels and proceeds to tell Sandra that one of her employees (Dreama Walker) has been accused of stealing money from a customer. He tells her that he will need her to assist in his investigation and help to recover the stolen money. What follows is a stunning display of manipulation as we witness the lengths people will go to under the command of a perceived authority figure.
First off all, I will say that Compliance is an effectively tense thriller. You are on edge through most of it, and every turn has your stomach dropping out a little more. And even though I had issues with the plot (more on that in a moment), I still found myself tense and uncomfortable throughout the proceedings.
The story is anchored by some solid performances from the cast. Ann Dowd is particularly good in her role as Sandra. She does an excellent job of conveying everything that character is thinking and experiencing, and while you might have a hard time believing that any of these events are actually happening, you still manage to believe her in this role. It sort of (but not completely) helps to ground this crazy situation by giving us a realistic character with which to identify. And Pat Healy is great in his role as the caller. He really nails the character as being “totally normal, but…” He even gives a couple of great reaction moments where it seems that even HE can’t believe what is transpiring in this story. It’s fantastic.
What follows are not really spoilers, exactly, but knowing them ahead of time would have changed my outlook while watching the film. But not in a negative way. So read on, or don’t – your call.
I had read a vague synopsis and had heard that it was based on a true story and, being a movie nerd, a grounded skeptic when it comes to “True Story” taglines and a psych major, I figured that this story was a fictional narrative based on the Milgram Experiment. This was a psychological study performed in ‘60s that basically explored the lengths to which ordinary people will go when under the command of an authority figure.
The film I got was not exactly the one that I was expecting. Honestly, I was not a huge fan of the flick when I turned it off. The performances were all excellent and the tension was well-built, but the plot seemed so implausible to me that I was frustrated with the experience and frankly, angry with Zobel. I figured either he was an idiot to have written such a crazy story and not even have attempted to keep it within the realm of believability, or worse, that he thought I was a bigger idiot and would buy into something so buttfucking crazy.
Then I looked it up. Holy. Fucking. Shit. Based on the info I found (and if this is inaccurate, please please tell me so and send me proof. Because I want to go back to my happy little world where this shit couldn’t possibly happen. Because seriously….Jesus Christ…) not only did this exact story pretty much happen as it is depicted onscreen, but this wasn’t the only instance of calls like this being made. I’m still trying to get my head around the truth behind this film. And in hindsight, it made for a fascinating viewing experience, to feel so strongly one way, and then feel completely differently after learning more about the backstory. My take on the film did a complete 180. The inclusion of this information doesn’t make the film perfect, but it goes a long way toward explaining why it unfolds the way it does.
So the final takeaway is that Compliance’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness: The truth is stranger than fiction. Even though this story is batshit insane, Zobel opted to stick with the craziness of reality, rather than shaving the narrative down into something more believable. This is a film that I will most definitely look at in a different light upon a second viewing. And had I known ahead of time how close to reality this story stuck, it definitely would have affected the way I saw it this time. I would have found myself less distracted by “That would never fucking happen” if I had known that somehow (and I really don’t understand how) it actually did fucking happen.