Craig Zobel’s dark sociological drama Compliance is an example of a film resting on the laurels of its real-life source material. In a strange way, it’s rather similar to Ben Affleck’s Argo in how the entire film is made better by the appalling fact that it tells a true story. Zobel’s film isn’t nearly as accomplished a piece of editing and direction at Affleck’s, but it still has its value and interest nonetheless.
Compliance follows one messed up evening in a Chick-Wich restaurant, a stand-in for any ordinary fast food restaurant you’d find in any ordinary American town. The middle-aged manager of the restaurant, played by the very impressive Ann Dowd, is overstressed and busy worrying about the banalities of work. In the midst of rush-hour, she gets a phone call from a man claiming to be a police officer (Pat Healy) who says that the young blonde girl (Dreama Walker) working the cash register stole from a customer. (I won’t even bother to name the characters as they aren’t fully realized individuals, but merely serve the function of their roles.) The police officer offers an ultimatum: either he can come down there and haul the girl away to prison, or the manager can strip search the girl herself to try to find the money and save her the hardships of having a criminal record.
These are realistic blue collar workers. The situation they inhabit is believable, and even the dark actions they take are realistic. However, I feel like the film is too reliant on its “BASED ON TRUE EVENTS” title that appears in big, bold letters right off the bat. If these letters didn’t appear right at the beginning of the film, would we believe the most depraved acts of the characters? I don’t really think so, because when the fake police officer requests that the girl “pay back” the manager’s fiancé, the film never convinces me that the girl would acquiesce so easily.
It’s not at all that I doubt that ordinary people are capable of such evil acts or taking advantage of such awful situations, it’s that the film never really investigated why the girl allowed herself to be such a victim. Is it as simple as the majority of society being compliant to authority? I believe this is ultimately what Craig Zobel is arguing, but I don’t think that gives the entire truth.
On a different note, I am somewhat stunned by the fact that this film has been called controversial. Certainly it inspires a strong reaction in the viewer, who either seethes in rage at the idiocy of the characters or strongly rejects what is happening onscreen in an attempt to convince themselves that they would never do such an appalling act. What both of these reactions show is the film’s strengths in getting a knee-jerk reaction from the audience. It is meant to provoke your rage and get you thinking about how easily people are manipulated by authority. But what is controversial about these points? They’re true. The events it depicts actually happened, and so it is controversial in the way a severely disturbing newspaper article is.
Compliance is an interesting film, and ripe for dissection in a sociology or psychology class. What it isn’t is deep. It may explore the dark depths of humans in their social environment, but it doesn’t get at the root of why these characters do what they do. It’s a compelling portrait of the compliant nature of most people, but it is almost more an allegorical exploration of society than an examination of flawed, interesting characters.
Written and directed by Craig Zobel; starring Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Philip Ettinger, Ashlie Atkinson, and Bill Camp.
6 out of 10