Most crimes are driven by greed or necessity, but not all. There are those rare occasions when a crime is committed out of pleasure, and it is one such case which forms the backbone of and inspiration behind Compliance. The true crime story which Compliance tells is one that is well-documented, but it is incredibly bizarre. The names of those involved have been changed, but otherwise the tale pans out mostly as it happened in real life.
The film begins, as the crime did, with a phone call. A man claiming to be a police officer dials a fast food restaurant—in real life this was a McDonalds, but here it is generic fried chicken outlet—and asks the manager to identify a worker who has supposedly been accused by a member of the public of stealing their wallet. Initially, this seems entirely plausible, as although the worker protests her innocence, the manager follows the police officer’s instructions as she feels it is the best thing to do. It is only when the instructions become more sinister that we, the audience, begin to suspect something is wrong, but even then the employees carry on obeying as if everything is routine.
The film allows us glimpses of the caller stood at a payphone, however the main motive for his call is left to our imagination. His eliciting control and requests of descriptions suggest both the exercising of power and the resulting voyeurism are his primary interests, especially as these seem to be the only things he gains from the crime taking place. There is no exchange of finances here, no profit.
The employee targeted is played with absolute conviction by Dreama Walker, and she is excellent throughout the film. In all honesty, every actor is note-perfect, and all deliver realistic and complex performances. At the front of the charge is Ann Dowd as the restaurant’s manager and she is equally brilliant, layered, and flawed. Her boyfriend, Bill Camp, also becomes involved, and when he does the game the caller is playing becomes even more disturbing.
This is a dark rabbit-hole of a film showing exactly how far the suggestion of authority can take a person, and how much others will engage with obvious wrongdoing when the responsibility for doing so is apparently taken away from them. It is not an easy watch, but it is a gripping one, as the caller’s conversation plays out within the restaurant.
The writing and direction, both by Craig Zobel, are naturalistic and yet stylish, with moments of visual brilliance. It is an even-handed and detached telling which avoids taking sides in a very obviously unbalanced dynamic, which forces us as the audience to take sides instead. It is a bold choice but one which I feel pays off incredibly well. It is our place to judge, much like the jury in the resulting trial would, and so we witness what happens from a dispassionate perspective that neither sensationalises nor trivialises the unfolding horror of the ongoing situation.
Compliance is a dangerous film to see, not in its content, but in its decision to turn the tables on you as the viewer. It is cinema which pushes boundaries and in doing so, it marks itself as one of the strongest and most impressive fictional retellings of a real life crime. Knowing that this all happened is the most shocking part of this film, of course, but that in itself adds a further dimension to its challenge. Compliance is outstanding.