Craig Zobel’s Compliance is a difficult, complex and intriguing thriller that explores the unfortunate true events that happened in a McDonald’s in 2004. Shot in a fictional fast food chain, the film stars Ann Dowd as Sandra, a manager at the establishment that receives a phone call from a man (Pat Healy) that says he’s a police officer. He describes one of Sandra’s employees and says that they’ve been involved in a theft and they need to be investigated. This leads Sandra to take Becky (Dreama Walker) into the back office for some questioning, that eventually leads to a downward spiral of degradation and humiliation. Causing quite the stir at Sundance, with people walking out in the middle of it, Compliance is a thriller that is sure to get under your skin in many ways.
Zobel wrote the film, after doing some research on behavioral experiments and hearing about what happened in 2004. This lead him to create a film that generates its conflict through gender power struggles and peoples capability to respond to authority. While I was certainly frustrated at many points, its extremely easy to see how these people were sucked into this scheme. The caller always asserts his dominance by constantly reinforcing his position as a police officer of the law and to call him sir, which constantly instills a sort of slave mentality into characters like Sandra and her fiancée, Van (Bill Camp).
On a technical level, Compliance manages to tells its story effectively, in mostly one location and its solid cast. The confines of being in the midst of one place, really adds to the claustrophobia and tension throughout the film. Even when it gets to the uncomfortable rape scene, Zobel chooses to focus on subtle imagery and gives us enough implications visually to show how far this investigation has gone. While the entire cast does a splendid job, its easy to see that Ann Down certainly solidifies the film and gives an incredible performance that highlights the moral conundrums contained within. We see her being laughed at by her employees early on, to then see her manipulated and convinced that she’s doing the right thing. Playing off of gullibility and vulnerability, Dowd’s performance brings a lot to the table and showcases a female character worth studying.
While I would certainly recommend the film, Compliance is a real tough sell. Its a very polarizing work and can rattle someone very easily. If someone wishes to see these gender and power dynamics in play, then they should understand what they’re getting into when seeing this film.