There’s so much I want to tell you about ‘Compliance’ but I also want you to go in reasonably blind because Craig Zobel’s chilling, expertly pitched, compact but emotionally exhausting psycho-drama is a beautiful slice of urban film noir and if there’s one message I want you to take from this review, it’s that you must see this movie.

compliance-posterSandra (Ann Dowd, ‘Garden State’) is the stressed-out manager of ‘ChickWich’ an understaffed fast food restaurant. Her day starts badly when she discovers that someone on the late shift left the freezer door open and spoiled a huge amount of stock, and it’s obvious from her uncomfortable attempt to banter with her staff that however much she wants to be included, she feels like an outsider.

And then Officer Daniels calls her. He says one of Sandra’s staff has been accused of stealing money from a customer and he accurately describes counter-girl Becky (Dreama Walker, ‘Gran Torino’), telling Sandra they’ve been secretly observing Becky as part of a bigger operation that Sandra’s boss already knows about. In fact, Sandra’s boss is on the other line right now (although Sandra never gets to talk to him). Officer Daniels asks Sandra to take Becky into a room for questioning until one of his Officers can get there.

Becky protests her innocence and Officer Daniels assures her that the sooner she does what she’s told, the quicker it will all be over. But what begins as a hard-nosed phone interrogation quickly escalates to a strip search, with the Officer assuring Sandra that he’ll take full responsibility for everything he asks her to do. But he’s a Police Officer and it’s Sandra’s responsibility to facilitate his requests.

And that doesn’t stop at removing Becky’s clothes.

Before this interrogation has ended, Officer Daniel’s requests will have become more and more convoluted, sordid and nasty. And when Sandra unwittingly brings her boyfriend Van (Bill Camp) into the story, leaving him alone in the room with a naked Becky and a voice on the phone that has Van’s every action controlled, the situation totally explodes.

‘Compliance’ is a film you’ll find yourself thinking about long after it’s finished.

I saw it three days ago, and the power of it is still resonating inside me.

If it had been a pure work of fiction, we’d be wondering how sick the film makers must be to create this thing, how irresponsible it is to put these ideas out into the world. Let’s face it, the scenario is so convincing one or two twisted people might want to try it out for themselves.

But, right at the top of the movie, big white letters advise us this is INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS.

That’s right. ‘Compliance’ is based on over 70 similar incidents reported in 30 U.S. States.

So the fact that Craig Zobel’s movie about a hideous prank phone-call is a convincingly truthful dramatisation of more than 70 incidents that actually happened, that it’s a real world demonstration of how bizarrely evil some people can be, of how even a devil-without-a-face can make weaker people behave in ways their own moral intelligence should automatically tell them is repugnant, makes it less a sick piece of exploitation film making and more an important public safety announcement.

And, let’s make something clear: nothing about ‘Compliance’ is exploitative. Nothing, apart from the sordid requests of the voice on the phone, is designed to titillate. But the psychological nastiness, the emotional inhumanity, is unrelenting.

Zobel and his cast walk a very difficult line. Even though we’re told these events really happened, a lot of what the Prankster asks Zobel’s characters to do quickly sounds too absurd to be believed. How could anyone be coerced into performing these kind of actions by some disembodied freak ? But Pat Healy (‘The Innkeepers’) is chillingly believable as Officer Daniels, and he seemingly has all the answers. Even during an early occasion when Sandra and her Shift Manager Marti (Ashlie Atkinson) both seem to pick up that something really isn’t right here, he says just enough to convincingly stop all their questions.

As Sandra says at the end of the film, “He had an answer every time.”

‘Compliance’ is a bleak film, right down to its washed-out colour palette (courtesy of DP Adam Stone), it’s precisely discompassionate camera angles, mostly medium close-ups that seem to take us right behind the character’s eyes, and even the occasional foray into the outside world offers only grey snow piled up against the sidewalks and a wintry sun that sheds only minimal light and even less warmth.

But there’s also the occasional glimmer of absurd black comedy inside the darkness, particularly a moment when – while Officer Daniels persuades Sandra’s boyfriend to make Becky perform nude jumping jacks,  in case she’s hidden the stolen money inside her, Sandra’s simultaneously telling her front-line staff to “get their drawers ready and drop in two minutes.”

An even darker sense of humour creeps in a short time later, when Officer Daniels talks to a humiliated but clearly-still-trying-to-hold-it-together Becky, telling her to submit to a spanking even while asking “Can you take your punishment and do something nice for Van because he assisted the police?”

Which is where the prank really hits a sinister road-of-no-return.

‘Compliance’ is astounding. All the performances are quietly perfect, particularly Ann Dowd’s convincingly clueless manager and Dreama Walker’s unhysterical  Becky, who spends the entire running time at the still centre of the nightmare, her face impassive, waiting with a kind of stunned grace for the next humiliation to befall her. And, without giving too much away, I thought it was an interesting choice that the only character who wasn’t going to be suckered into the game was someone who, on paper, should have taken less coercing than anyone.

Craig Zobel’s direction is as clean and uncluttered as his writing. There’s no sleight of hand, just surgically precise storytelling. And Heather McIntosh’s spare music-box score complements everything.

When we consider evil, particularly the kind of evil that makes feeble people do very bad things, we usually think on a global basis: a Fuhrer, a Despot, a Cult Leader, a Terrorist.

‘Compliance’ is about grass roots, every day evil. The kind of evil that could induct you or me to its cause and we might not even notice it. That’s what makes it so terrifying.

And so important.

About The Author

Ian White is an author, screenwriter and journalist. His book ‘Witchcraft and Black Magic in British Cult Cinema’ was recently published by Hemlock and he is a regular contributor to ‘Paranormal Underground’ and ‘Starburst’ magazines. He’s currently writing a new book and screenplay and his embarrassingly out-of-date website can be found at http://ianwhitelondon.wix.com/ian-white