Based on real events, Craig Zobel’s Compliance is a disturbing foray into civic obedience, gullibility and the limits of compassion.
The Accused by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
For British audiences, rather than the moral question of how far you would go to assist the police, Compliance may well illustrate the dilemma of how long you would stay on the phone before risking impoliteness and hanging up. Craig Zobel’s film dramatises real-life crimes in which a hoaxster calls up fast-food joints, and succeeds in persuading senior members of staff into questioning, strip-searching and abusing their burger-pushing underlings. It’s a confidence tricked out of the carefully gleaned name of a regional manager, the name badge of a check-out server, or just a guess that one of them may be blonde, 19 and kinda pretty. But it’s a dangerous cat-and-mouse game of trust, compliance and manipulation.
It’s rural Ohio, but it could be any of the fifty states of the US of A. And opening with a montage of rusting drainpipes, heaped snow and painted lines, Compliance reveals our unwitting and deep-seated obedience to authority – stop, go, no waiting. But the success of Craig Zobel’s Compliance is likely to hang on one’s own personal disposition towards the police and one’s fellow man. It’s well acted by leads Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker, as the put-upon restaurant restaurant manager and burger waitress accused of stealing from a customer, as they gradually succumb to the prankster’s authority and unwittingly draw colleagues and loved ones into an unwelcome crime. But Compliance‘s narrative thread, hoisted onto an inscrutable mobile phone, is centred around a battle of wills, Becky and Sandra overcoming their natural reluctance to search and strip, while the caller posing as police officer Daniels salivates over how far he can push it.
By the midway point, the disembodied voice on the phone materialises into a thirty-something white man calling from his suburban home, sucking on a Chickwich soft drink. He’s a rather anodyne villain, coaxing and coercing his victims while making himself a sandwich, and in danger of being rumbled when his phone credit threatens to run out. Like the notorious Milgram experiment, it’s a masterclass in manipulation techniques aiming to overcome man’s inhibitions to inflict harm upon one’s fellow man, Officer Daniels taking responsibility for proceedings, alleviating Sandra from the burden of guilt. And like a puppetmaster pulling her strings, he plays on her kindness, persuading her to participate so that Becky’s details don’t go on record. He threatens and flatters until Becky’s will is broken, as she gives in to his assertions of authority – “Call me officer!”. Politely and with the due diligence worthy of a national fast-food chain, Sandra’s hesitant (and healthy) doubt gives way to a glib belief in her guilt. Just as in The Hunt there’s a desperate need for black and white certainty beyond the uncomfortably tense grayscale of doubt.
How much we believe in Craig Zobel’s Compliance will depend largely on Officer Daniels’ performance. And it’s a neat and fitting conclusion that he is arrested at his cubicled day-job, wielding his machiavellian wiles coercing callers into buying insurance from a call centre. Zobel never reveals the manipulations that cause Becky to end up fellating Van, perhaps too much of a strain on our comprehension or compassion. But like its protagonist string-puller, Compliance isn’t really as clever as it thinks it is. The fake policeman’s telephone manner often seems confused and amateurish, let alone perverted and voyeuristic. Viewers must be able to suspend their disbelief and put themselves in Sandra, Becky and Van’s shoes. But Compliance isn’t engaging enough to keep us emotionally involved, and we steer uncontrollably through the narrative’s choppy waters, veering between tragic compassion and comic superiority. And, like the police and TV interviewer who appear in the final reel, disregard our nagging (and perhaps misguided) doubt that we could never be so gullible as to fall for such a low-down, dirty trick.
Without our critical distance suspended, abhorrence quickly turns into risible disbelief. But nevertheless, based on over 70 real-life cases, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. And the fact that similar cases have occurred all over the States means Compliance can’t be dismissed so lightly. It’s at times unbelievable, but still an inconvenient truth.
Compliance is released on 22nd March 2013 in the UK