What would you do for a Klondike Bar? What would you do if a police officer called you in the middle of a busy night as manager of a fast food restaurant and claimed they had a witness who saw one of the employees steal and the officer needs you to help him carry out the investigation, even to the extent of performing a strip search? This is basically what happens (well, worse, actually) in Compliance, the controversial new film written (extremely well) and directed (in standard poverty row, digital chic) by Craig Zobel.
Inspired by true events, in which a sociopath would call unsuspecting locations and claim to be with local law enforcement, Compliance begins as a very effective character study as to how gullible people are and how easy it is for us to obey authority, even if the authority is spurious. It’s not an easy premise for Zobel to pull off. No one in the audience is going to admit that if put in the same situation they would do the same thing (no matter that the epilog mentions that something similar happened 70 times in the U.S.).
In fact, the audience is immediately going to go for the holier than thou attitude, looking down on the poor wretches who fell for the ruse saying to themselves that “of course they fell for it, they work in fast food”. And there’s one very effective scene at the end in which the restaurant manager is interviewed by a TV reporter with the best attitude that a Pharisee can buy that perhaps earns the character more empathy than even Zobel might have intended.
But Zobel does sell his premise and he does it very effectively. First through a very solid and believable screenplay with dialog that is well thought out, all delivered in a very realistic and natural vernacular and cadence. But second, and perhaps more importantly, through a series of strong performances by all involved. No matter how much you might question that such a thing could happen, the actors make you believe it. The triumvirate that holds the film together, Dreama Walker as Becky, the victim; Ann Dowd as Sandra, the manager; and Pat Healy as “Officer Daniels”, the villain, are first rate. Healy especially excels in his role as a salesman who can sell ice to the Eskimos with a delivery so oily and decadent he puts Hannibal Lector to shame.
Zobel also does one very interesting thing with the role of Becky by making her somewhat unsympathetic when she first appears on the screen, giving her the personality of a princess who thinks she’s too good for the job and superior to her manager. At first one actually enjoys her discomfort, until what happens really starts to sink in.
But Zobel only sells it for about half way until something so awful happens that one slowly begins to have second thoughts about whether this could really happen. At this point, it no longer becomes a study as to how far some stranger can con people, but becomes a study as to how far some screenwriter and director can con a theater audience, which isn’t the same thing. I’m not saying that this awful thing didn’t happen in real life; maybe it did (it’s never stated one way or the other). And I don’t want to dismiss so cavalierly something so awful happening to someone. But even if it did happen, all I can think of is Mark Twain’s comment: The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to be credible. Because of this, the movie fails somewhat as a study of human nature, but still remains as a very effective horror movie.