Craig Zobel’s semi-factual thriller was one of the most controversial films at last year’s Sundance, but it’s far from being a pointlessly provocative exercise in audience discomfort. Compliance tells the fiercely focused story of a call that was made to a busy fast-food outlet making allegations that one of the employees stole money from a customer’s purse. The caller claims to be a police officer and the manager Sandra (Dowd), being the blindly law-abiding citizen that she is, endeavours to follow his every order. She keeps the pretty blonde Becky (Walker) in solitary confinement, constantly reassuring her that all will be fine, but when Officer Daniels (Healy) commands Sandra to perform a strip search the situation quickly becomes one of helpless humiliation.
The proceedings play out almost like a piece of theatre, with a tortuous sense of claustrophobia hanging in the air throughout, and we are made to watch almost every detail as the so-called Officer’s motivations prove increasingly twisted. It’s a profoundly unnerving experience, but that’s something that should be commended rather than criticised as the sense of tension is so skilfully maintained that it possesses the power to engross for a full hour and a half.
The film creates a frighteningly believable world and the authentic performances from every single cast member contribute to this sense of realism. Dowd’s extraordinary performance is a force to be reckoned with as the desperately moral Sandra, a gentle human being who’s willingness to do good leads her inadvertently down a path of evil. It’s her masterfully realised portrayal of a warm and likable character in a terrible situation that makes the skin-crawling event all the more unbearable to witness.
Unfortunately things aren’t always wholly plausible and there are moments, particularly in the film’s latter half, where fiction is favoured over the facts to heighten the grotesque drama. This is especially the case when Sandra’s gormless lover Van (Camp), who is involved in some of the more disturbing moments, comes into the equation. Camp’s performance is equally as nuanced as the rest of the cast, but the situation his character is put in ultimately becomes farfetched which undermines the credibility of the narrative. From here on in the film begins to deflate slightly and it can never quite manage to find a satisfying note to end on.
But flaws aside, this is an unflinching, confrontational and extremely compelling piece of cinema that constantly asks us to question the actions of the characters, but also of ourselves. It’s a challenge not to picture yourself in the scenario and imagine how you would react under such pressure. It’s these kinds of audacious characteristics that make Compliance difficult to digest and it leaves a taste that will linger for quite some time.