Review: COMPLIANCE is a Taut, Brilliant Character Piece

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
Review: COMPLIANCE is a Taut, Brilliant Character Piece

If I told you that Compliance is a taut, brilliant character piece, would you believe me without question?

Anybody who has read of the Milgram experiment in the 60's is probably convinced that they wouldn't fall prey to such an obvious ploy. Simply being told to comply shouldn't turn off that rational part of our brain that says "hold on a sec". Yet time after time, it's proven that for many of us our behaviours act far more like the proverbial frog in a stovepot, sitting quietly, blithely as the water slowly heats up until, bit by bit, it's boiled to death.

The strength of Compliance lies in how it proceeds, step by step, over the cliffs of insanity. At any moment the actions and behaviours of the characters seem entirely preposterous, yet there's a clear line at every moment of just how we got to where we now are. The incremental nature of the film, its impeccable pace and taut performances by the ensemble cast, allow the viewer to be sucked into the morass of the situation, all the while confident that there's no way that anybody would really fall for such a preposterous lie.

We're told from the outset that the film is based on a true story, yet from the opening moments it seems just too insane to be true. A man calls in to a small town fast-food joint, purporting to be a police officer. He describes in general terms a blonde cashier, accusing her of stealing from a client. He then, in a dry, deliberate fashion, convinces the manager to escalate the situation on behalf of the "investigation". By the time the film rolls along to its conclusion, the sheer brutality of the actions, and the head-smacking disbelief watching the characters make mistake after mistake, becomes more than a little offsetting, if not preposterous.

Unlike many of these "ripped from the headlines", the most egregious elements of this story are completely consistent with actual events. By the time the final moments of the film transpire, the work is elevated by having characters outside the central action comment upon the sheer madness of what transpires, asking the very questions that a rapt audience has been asking for much of the running time. Delving into the reported events of the real situation(s), it's clear that the filmmakers changed only superficial elements, including a nice twist in the occupation of the perpetrator of the call. Much of the rest of the tale, from the smallest detail to the most repugnant abuse, fall directly in line with what is purported to have occurred.

This work isn't a documentary, nor is it slavish to reality. At the same time, it's a work not shy about sticking to the facts of the case even if narrative credulity is strained. There's nothing titillating or exploitational about how the film unfolds, it's almost matter-of-fact in its tone and construction. Compliance manages to do its best in a claustrophobic setting, cross cut with the cacophony of an operating restaurant, making even the most sordid of behaviours seem completely within the scope of the decisions these individuals would make at any given time. At times the events portrayed are done in an almost chaste way, focussing on the emotional abuse rather than the physical titillation of an audience watching the mess unfold.

Much of the success of the film lies on the shoulders of the extremely capable cast. As the central, more manifest victim, Dreama Walker (known mostly for her comedic TV work) plays the look of stupefaction with great aplomb. With each escalating moment, her character remains believable as a small town adolescent succumbing to the onslaught of psychic warfare thrown her way. In such a short period, she gives in incrementally to what at every stage is presented as the lesser of two evils. This overt manipulation would be simply sordid if it weren't for the restrained and believable performance that Walker provides.

Other members of the ensemble are also more than capable, but the beautifully nuanced and memorable performance belongs to Ann Dowd. Her turn as the manager is so shocking, so arch at one moment and restrained at another, that it's difficult to imagine it being pulled off with any sense of credulity, yet Dowd manages at each turn to maintain a clear sense of what this character's motivations are. Her quick turns of emotion, be it glowering at her "fiancée" because of his drinking, or soothingly convincing her employee to undress at the behest of the officer on the phone, speaks to an insecure, overworked individual ripe for such emotional exploitation.

The capper is the TV interview that Dunn gives at the conclusion, a matter-of-fact, almost flirtatious take with the reporter that's almost as shocking as the more explicit events that occupy much of the running time. Her continued obliviousness remains paramount, yet this is exactly the type of self-delusion that's not only manifest in a wide range of individuals, but the very characteristics that the caller exploited to escalate the situation. It's in these brief and brilliantly calculated moments that the film transcends being a mere retelling of a fascinating crime story and becomes, in fact, a quite remarkable character piece, rich in both texture and capability.

I think it may be easy to miss both the sophistication of the presentation under the more manifest elements of the film, some no doubt deriding it as mere exploitation, like a Saw film without the buckets of blood. I find this view to be preposterous, with the film managing at every move to remain firmly anchored as a film about character and psychology rather than about feeding into the visceral thrills of an audience.

This is a remarkable film from Craig Zobel, along with his long-time collaborator David Gordon Green listed as one of the producers. Taut, edgy, at times almost farcical yet remaining incredibly powerful, this is a small scope film big on execution. It's extremely well performed, shot with a capability that films of this size don't normally merit (a fine shot of the police arriving at the restaurant is particularly excellent), and takes its audience on a very twisted journey indeed.

Compliance is now playing in limited theatrical release in Toronto and New York. It expands to selected cities in the U.S. beginning on August 24.


  • Craig Zobel
  • Craig Zobel
  • Ann Dowd
  • Matt Servitto
  • Dreama Walker
  • Pat Healy
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Craig ZobelAnn DowdMatt ServittoDreama WalkerPat HealyBiographyCrimeDrama

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