How far would you do something that made you feel uneasy, just because someone said you had to? What if that person were a police officer or some other authority figure?
This is the question posed in Compliance, where the clash of moral dilemma and civil obedience is the crux of an enthralling but hugely disturbing retelling of a real life hoax with terrible results.
Sharp, realistic performances by three slightly-known but not overly familiar actors recount the story of Sandra (Ann Dowd), a harrassed store manager battling with refrigeration breakdown and the threat of an impending secret shopper. She receives a phonecall from a police officer who tells her one of the employees, young, blonde Becky (Gossip Girl’s Dreama Walker), has been accused of stealing from a customer. Having instructed Sandra to detain Becky in a backroom, the officer then leads them unwittingly into a nightmare of exploitation and manipulation.
It’s a commendable theme, reminiscent of ethical questions surrounding German complicity in the Holocaust and recent social experiments that have seen people turn on one another because of a manufactured situation. The horror underpinning Compliance’s 90 minutes of knotted-stomach unease is that it happened for real in countless incidents across the United States, many in that most banal of locations – a fast-food restaurant.
Cinematically, it’s a very fine film – expert pacing, compelling performances, an horrifically gripping narrative, all shot with documentary-like handheld camerawork which juxtaposes the backroom horror with scenes of happy diners enjoying their Chickwich meals.
Director Craig Zobel has strived to render the tale as objectively as possible, and to some extent my longing to look away as events unfolded outweighed my concerns about whether there is justification in dramatising a real person’s humiliation and pretending it’s a morality tale. An investigative article would have been just as shocking, but whether Compliance as a movie serves some higher purpose is a moot point. But then again, the very best films are designed to provoke exactly such a discussion.