When I heard that Craig Zobel’s film Compliance provoked audience members to walk out and arguments to erupt during the film’s Q & A at Sundance 2012, I couldn’t help but find out what all the fuss was about. Compliance, based on true events, takes place over a single night at ‘Chickwich’, a fast food restaurant. Assistant manager Sandra, played by Ann Dowd, receives a phone call from a ‘police officer’ claiming that one of her employees, Becky (Dreama Walker), has stolen money from a customer. Sandra is then required to stay on the line and carry out a set of instructions as dictated by the caller, in an attempt to recover the stolen money. The situation then escalates over the course of the day, and the actions Sandra and her co-workers are forced to take become increasingly perverse and extreme.
Now Compliance is without a doubt uncomfortable viewing. And rightly so. The questions the film raises and the themes touched upon are not comfortable. It shines a light onto the obedient and submissive parts of human nature; our diminished sense of responsibility when acting through another party; and our sheer willingness to adhere to hierarchy and authority. For this, the film is commendable. If Zobel’s intention was to insight debate, both externally and internally, he has definitely succeeded. As to whether Compliance is an accomplished and whole piece of cinema? I’m not convinced. It certainly had elements that worked well; Ann Dowd as Sandra puts in a strong performance and Zodel successfully creates a world that is claustrophobic and almost suffocatingly dirty. However, the lack of emotional intensity and commitment from the characters leads the film into the voyeuristic and it becomes mocking. Without an emotional connection and a thought process with which the audience can empathise, it’s difficult to not become overly-judgemental and increasingly angry at the sheer blind obedience displayed by the main characters.
Overall, Compliance is a frustrating watch. Zobel puts all the pieces in front of us, asks the questions, makes us feel really uneasy but never really succeeds in bringing all the necessary elements together. Zobel seems to rely on the audience having prior knowledge to buy into the premise of the film instead of delivering dramatically; Dreama Walker’s performance is monotone and fails to ever fully convey the punch needed. It’s also worth noting that Zobel decided explicitly to make Becky beautiful, in her early twenties and promiscuous with boys, which completely ignores the personality type most susceptible to manipulation; mid to late teens, shy, from a strict family and working class. None of that background was remotely explored or touched upon, and as a result, the film became lazy and gratuitous. Zobel has relied too much on the what and completely ignored the why. As it has been proven, without the why, the audience may just walk out.