Compliance only works as a psychological thriller if you know that Director Craig Zobel based the film off of true events. Even then, to avoid the feeling of absurdity as the film’s story escalates, it’s best to know the actual back-story. Several years ago, U.S. news headlines called attention to a restaurant manager who took her employee into the backroom and told her to strip under the direction of a police officer on the phone. Unfortunately, that officer was a prank caller.
Zobel captures a terrifying and disturbing tale of unwitting abuse through Dreama Walker, who plays a fast-food chain cashier, and Ann Dowd, her manager. Although you may know where the story is heading, it’s hard not to wince when you watch this film. Zobel delivers awry realism, which made me cringe more than once. Nothing is sensationalized and you get the feeling that the sad events that transpire could happen – if Dowd was indeed your manager and you were a willing, compliant employee.
The film begins when a man, claiming to be a police officer, calls a Chick Wich restaurant and alerts the manager to a theft at her location. Dowd, wanting to comply with the officer’s requests begins to question her staff, under the caller’s direction. She eventually brings Walker into the back room to question her on the theft. Walker complies with Dowd’s requests, hoping to resolve the situation quickly. After checking Walker’s pocket book and personal effects, it appears that Walker is innocent. However, the caller persists and things begin to go off the rails when the caller escalates the situation – going so far as to call attention to a broader investigation surrounding Walker.
Dowd is asked to bring in a third party. The supporting cast does a fantastic job here. Philip Ettinger plays Walker’s friend. When the caller asks Ettinger to check Walker, Ettinger begins to comply and then refuses since he is Walker’s friend. Zobel makes a smart decision to keep the story grounded. As viewers who know the true events, you expect Walker to eventually strip. Had Ettinger been a willing participant, the story would have shifted to a more comical tone – with Ettinger as the horny friend. That’s not the case in Compliance. Instead, a female co-worker is called in to assist, who just follows orders. Bill Camp also makes an appearance as Dowd’s boyfriend.
The story inevitably goes down a darker, downward spiral. Without knowing the real events, it would be hard to take it seriously. There are a few moments when the caller makes requests that are blatantly wacky. Sure, you probably would assume you would act differently in that situation. But, Zobel is calling attention to those who act with unwavering respect to authority.
If someone would have told me that a movie which centers on a prank call that leads to sexual abuse could be thrilling, I would be first in line to call bullshit. However, Zobel has delivered a tale that is truly unique and will surely lead to several post-film conversations.
Compliance may be a one-trick story, but this is a film that you have to watch – just to appreciate the solid acting performances and Zobel’s plain, pragmatic direction.