Compliance is one of those films that will haunt you for days. While it is billed as a psychological thriller it might as well be a horror film. The fact that is based on a true story makes it all the more disturbing. Be warned, this film is not for the faint of heart.
The story is simple enough. The story focuses on an ordinary group of people who work at a generic fast food company in an unnamed city. The staff is your standard group of minorities, teenagers and blue-collar workers. During one of the busiest nights of the year the restaurants gets a phone call from the police claiming that a female employee named Becky (Dreama Walker) has stolen money from a customer and is part of a larger criminal investigation. The policeman orders the manager on-duty Sandra (Ann Dowd) to bring her in back for questioning.
What starts out as normal procedure quickly becomes more complex and damaging as the officer asks the employees of the store to submit Becky to increasingly humiliating actions. Meanwhile the customers in the store and employees act as if nothing is wrong, completely unaware of the atrocities going on in the back of the restaurant. One by one the man on the other end toys with the employees and very few of them seem to register that anything is wrong. By the time anyone notices anything, too much damage has already been done.
This is a movie that sneaks up on you. Writer and director Craig Zobel, who had only really worked on documentary and Web series work before this film slowly builds the tension throughout the movie eventually sucker punching you with the conclusion. The employees at first seem more like caricatures but once they are put under pressure their true nature comes out loud and clear. No one is who they seem and that is what makes watching the film all the more fascinating.
Zobel’s choice to reveal the mystery antagonist to the viewer is a questionable approach. After a little while it is clear that there is something horribly wrong with the situation these people are being put through so taking away that sense of danger early on doesn’t make much sense. On the other hand, this actually happened and the person on the other end is not simply the creation of the filmmaker but a real life villain. Watching him react to the events in the restaurant makes his character all the more creepy and memorable.
At its core Compliance is about testing the human spirit and trying to understand how people can do such horrifying things. This year’s other surprise psychological masterpiece Sound of My Voice took almost the same approach but was easier to dismiss because it was a work of fiction. Knowing that not only did Compliance happen but, as you find out at the end, has happened dozens of times all over the country.
Sometimes reality is the most disturbing of all. While Compliance is, without a doubt, a sleeper hit recommending multiple viewings is tough. The film sticks in your head and does not let go. Watching the movie gives you an insight into the depths of humanity, not everyone will like looking into the mirror.
The film opens in Los Angeles August 24th followed by a national release. Watch the trailer.