Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy
You may like this if you liked: Phone Booth (Joel Schumacher, 2002), Exam (Stuart Hazeldine, 2009), Fermat’s Room (Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopeña, 2007)
Based on true events, Compliance tells the story of the dramatic and very dark events that take place in a fast food restaurant over one night. What looks set to be a typical busy evening takes a dramatic and dark turn after an alleged phone call from a police officer (Healy). The already stressed manager (Dowd) answers the phone and the apparent Police officer tells her that one of her employees, Becky (Walker) earlier stole from a customer. They claim that the customer is there with them and that the manager must keep Becky in the office waiting to be picked up by the police, an allegation Becky completely denies. The ‘officer’ claims that the police station is extremely busy and so there is no one available to come to the restaurant and therefore to speed up the process and prove Becky’s guilt the manager will have to completely strip search Becky. Reluctant at first, the manager complies and Becky is forced to strip until she is naked despite protesting her innocence and left wearing just a borrowed apron. To manipulate and control events further, the apparent officer claims to have spoken to the general manager and also that he is currently searching Becky’s house as she may be involved in her brothers apparent drug dealing (which he does not). To find the money events spiral to even darker levels as various members of staff and the manager’s fiancé (!) are left to look after Becky. With their differing levels of gullibility when being told what to do by a voice of apparent authority, these various people contribute to Becky’s sexual and physical humiliation for a crime she never committed.
Oh god lord, this is a difficult one to review, let alone to decide whether I recommend it. I have very little knowledge of what actually happened in these true stories though I am aware that many similar incidents to what the narrative portrays have genuinely happened. I also have to say that I get the whole ‘easy to judge when watching but how about when you are actually in that situation’ speech that Zobel has constantly said when interviewed. People are much easier to manipulate when panicking and vulnerable, especially when apparently hearing from a voice of authority. Some admittedly more than others and this film does show that to be fair as some characters refuse to comply with the caller. Fine, but in an effort to fill 90 minutes and perhaps really shock people this whole message in my opinion gets lost as the film really takes some serious liberties with my ability to go along with that. When a film is marketed as ‘shocking’ it will always attract a crowd that will watch it for the wrong reasons and if these events did happen describing them is sufficiently shocking. To then graphically show what happened feels both contrived and patronising. There are some extremely pointless scenes that add nothing. Some scenes are drawn out and this can be effective at adding tension, but here they lack any genuine tension as they for me they were just too ridiculous and unbelievable leading to them feeling contrived.
One thing that troubles me throughout is the actual intentions of the director. Is it a genuine attempt to simply document what happened, a lecture on the gullibility and stupidity of people or almost an attack on the voyeuristic tendencies of us the viewer? I do not know. All I know is that I constantly found myself wanting to shout at the screen as I could not believe the stupidity of these people. I have worked in a restaurant like this and know that no manager would ever go as far as what happens here, and they would certainly not get their fiancé who does not work there involved. In a world of political correctness gone mad where everyone can sue everyone else managers know they have to be so careful that as soon as it got to completely strip searching Becky no manager who is solely in charge of a restaurant and everyone in the building would go any further. Everything after that was just beyond belief for me and led to an extremely infuriating viewing experience, the fact what happened felt too farfetched destroyed any effectiveness or shock value of what was being depicted. Ok, so apparently what is portrayed did genuinely happen and so if that is the case the case the film needs to work harder at trying to understand why. It feels here that Zobel just wants to make a film about a shocking true event and hope that the fact it is ‘shocking’ will be enough. If we want to know what happened we can use this wonderful invention called the internet to read about what happened. A film with a narrative of a fictional retelling of the event needs to do more and it feels that a better film maker would do a much more effective and thought provoking job than Zobel has. If you want a film that is an effective lecture on our voyeuristic approach to watching violence then I recommend Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Zober seems to complacently believe that a simple retelling is enough, but there has to be some substance as that is just lazy and insulting to the viewer’s intelligence.
This film feels like a bit of a mess and quite frankly seems to be trying too hard to convey various ‘shocking’ messages that it borders on farcical and lacks any genuine power. There appear to be many different ideas at work and it would have been far better to focus on one and make that more effective. Some of the things that happen to Becky are appalling and I personally thought it was a bad idea to show them. Of course it is not as graphic as it could have been and is only a 15 here in the UK, but description for me is always more effective and shocking than showing. The film almost feels a little patronising as opposed to shocking when showing the appalling things that happen to Becky, as it feels that Zobel appears to have to feel he has to show things too much for us to understand how bad they are. Basically, it feels like the main message of Compliance is that people are stupid and so are the people watching Compliance. Thank you Craig, really appreciate that!
The fact that different characters comply with differing extents was the one thing I found genuinely interesting. It possibly reveals differences in their personalities and underlying darker thoughts. One character refuses as it feels wrong, another simply sees through what the caller is trying to do and another complies completely to the extent that they commit rape. A situation like this could reveal people’s true personalities and perhaps the dark places of their subconscious. That would be an interesting idea to explore in a film, but if this is the intention of Compliance then it could have been done so much better and not in the patronising lecture like tone like it is here. Indeed at the end there is a scene showing the manager being interviewed on TV and genuinely believing she is a victim, but by then I was already so incredibly annoyed by what I had previously seen to care anymore. This was especially the case as the dialogue was very mediocre.
It is worth noting that the cast, especially Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker are excellent and give their character as much depth as they can considering the material they are given to work with is rather average. I suppose Craig Zobel deserves some credit as I have had to write such a long review, but that is only to attempt to describe why I personally think this film is a complete failure.
Compliance for me is ultimately an extremely infuriating experience that actually taught me nothing. It is certainly a film you will not forget, but is one I would not recommend. There was material here that a better director could have made into a film with interesting and thought provoking ideas, but if anyone does want to know about these stories and be genuinely shocked then it is better to simply read about them.