Review: COMPLIANCE is a Taut, Brilliant Character Piece

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic

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.

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  • Kurt Halfyard

    I was a big fan of COMPLIANCE as well. And while I agree with Jason that Dowd in particular was absolutely fantastic, as was the entire cast of actors, this film, for me is not really a character piece, but an agressive, Lars Von Trier /Michael Haneke style take down of one of the uglier parts of western society.

    How we think we are so much more advanced after Nazi Germany or either the Milgram or Stanford Prison experiments. Maybe some of us are. But the ongoing ugly side of capitalism, namely parts of the middle and the lower-middle class which lacks personal empowerment and can often live in fear (loss of job, making ends meet, etc.)

    The most shocking thing about Compliance is how damn close it mirrors the actual events, even if you think that the filmmakers are just going further for the sake of going further (See Dogville or Dancer in the Dark, for instance in a lesson in pushing the audience to breaking point), or Funny Games for its shrill condemnation of the same audience fore being entertained by suffering. The fact that the film plays this game with its audience, while that very same 'game' is the subject matter of the film, is actually kind of brilliant. Couple it all together with craft and intelligence, and well, this is good filmmaking and good art.

    To sum up, Zobel is asking questions about a large slice of our society and our own understanding of what we think our society is. It's curious that he didn't take the film into all the myriad lawsuits (against MacDonalds) that followed in the actual story, and that both the victimized employee, and the victimized manager (who was in charge of the poor girls victimization) both ended up with close to $1M settlements with the franchise, even if the assistant manager was fired.

    I admired this film for its unflinching ability to push buttons and raise questions that people are often reluctant to confront about themselves and their society (and their perception of how the two mix together). It's a great new-millenium mirror, in short a great film. The fact that it has impeccable acting, looks great, and is wonderfully crafted is simply icing on the cake.

  • J Hurtado

    I love that we have two COMPLETELY opposite reviews here for this film. I fall somewhere in between. I think that a lot of the film is fantastic, but the coda is terribly cheap and exploitative and totally saps the film of its impact. You can't end a film that badly and expect me to only remember the good stuff.

  • Jason Gorber

    Heh, you know me... studio shill and all. :)

    Kidding aside, I actually =love= the ending. I think that might be my favourite part, that flirtation is more eerie that even some of the harshest elements of the phone call. I think it'd be half the film if somebody didn't come on screen and say, "uh, what the fuck were you thinking", both as stand-in for the audience and to drive the narrative home.

    I was also genuinely intrigued that the most preposterous elements of the entire story were, as above, those elements of the true story they didn't change at all.

  • Jason Gorber

    ps. I will say this - I'm glad I didn't see it under the umbrella of a festival. I didn't particularly have any expectations one way or another about the film, but I'm glad I had space before and after for it to breathe.

    Fests are funny things - sometimes mediocre films seem like the "bestest things ever" at the moment, then quickly fade, while other films are decent at the time, and then seem far superior when seen apart from other works. I try my best to take this into account, but it doesn't always work.

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