Director: Craig Zobel
Cast: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy
Run-Time: 90 minutes
Release: 22nd March
Beginning in July 1961, the Milgram experiments set out to measure obedience in relation to authority. Participants were encouraged to administer doses of illusory electro-shock to an unseen actor in another room by a supposed authority figure that would accept responsibility for the test subject’s actions. Utilising only a handful of scripted, authoritative lines, the subject would be spurred on to administer fictitiously larger doses of electricity to the supposed victim.
Feigning Adam Curtis style narrative cohesion here, we segue into Craig Zobel’s indie smash of Sundance 2012. Compliance follows a sordid evening of Milgram-esque escapades in a fast food outlet. Becky (Walker) becomes the unwitting victim of a strenuous prank call, as her superiors succumb to the authoritative responsibility of Officer Daniels (Healy), the caller. It is important to remember that while the actions carried out in this film seem ridiculous and inane from the viewer’s voyeuristic perch, they are based on over 70 real incidents across the US, specifically an incident in a Kentucky McDonalds in 2004.
Escalating from strip-search to jumping-jacks to outright sexual assault, writer/director Zobel contemplates stationary shots of Midwest banality, layered with a sinister cello score to elicit a furtive misé-en-scene, cognitively disconnected from the rationale of hindsight. Coupled with subtle exposition, Compliance quietly creates a plausible backdrop through which this psychologically jarring narrative can take place. Dowd, as store manager Sandra, convincingly evokes the authoritative paralysis and resentment so common in middle-management retail, justifying her trickle-down orders from Officer Daniels in a sea of “because I told you so”.
However, the tempered performances of the ‘ChickWich’ restaurant loosen when compared to Pat Healy’s performance as Daniels. The malevolent pleasure he exhibits as the villain-by-proxy alienates the viewer to a certain degree, plunging you into a satirical rendition of the bad guy from Speed. Instead of maps and bomb schematics lining the walls of his lair, there are phone cards and notebooks full of the scrawled details of his victims. As the villain is given physical character, the pace of the film picks up to a sprint. It forces out a cruel mood that begins to make the audience complicit in the actions of the narrative; almost as if this were some sexual chat-roulette, where we’re engaged in passive acceptance.
Compliance shares a heavy rendition of reality, delivering curious shocks and emotional obscurity, finding relative justification through an inquisitive medium such as film. That being said, the ambiguity within the acceptance of the characters’ actions leaves an unthought-of gap in the intention of the piece. Does the film wish to inquire or just thrill? Compliance is numbingly gritty, but to what end?