56th BFI London Film Festival Review – Compliance (2012)

Compliance, 2012.

Written and Directed by Craig Zobel.
Starring Anne Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger and James McCaffrey.


A prank caller convinces a fast food restaurant manager he’s a police officer investigating one of her employees. Events escalate, eventually harming everyone involved in different ways.

Getting up at six in the morning so I can get to a cinema in time to watch a movie about a prank caller who persuades people to strip search someone and essentially rape them. What has my life come to? I used to leisurely catch the latest Chris Nolan flick, the occasional Pixar offering. The darkest I ever got was watching a Tarantino movie. Doubtless Marcellus Wallace would have something to say to the prank caller in this movie.

But the outlandish events found therein are, unfortunately, based on fact. And, it seems, disturbingly close to fact. The case is well documented and the film, according to other pieces written on it, seems to follow the events pretty closely.

During the screening, others seemingly doubted the events (with nervous laughter coming from everyone including yours truly) and I’ve read about people walking out of screenings. Fortunately for the filmmakers, I think this is more down to what the film depicts, not how it depicts. The film isn’t exploitative in any way, with outrage probably more down to what is suggested and implied.

Right, now I’ve got that disclaimer out of the way. Compliance is based on a crime, where a man pretending to be a police officer (Healy) calls up and persuades the manager (Dowd) of a restaurant to strip search an employee (Walker). Events eventually lead to something even worse than a strip search, and therein lies the potential distaste for the film.

The film’s shot very well and, for what it’s about and contains, was shot as tastefully and respectfully as possible. None of the acts, or the crime itself, were ever glorified. The film isn’t so much about the acts themselves. It’s more about control and the way people can be influenced. A real life example being where psychologist Stanley Milgram got people to shock others, with the people only going along with it because of an authority figure. In this film’s case, a police officer.

The film itself, moving away from controversy now, is very well made. The tension of the situation is well crafted. For every outlandish moment, the acting anchors it down a little. It’s not perfect though, and Ann Dowd’s performance as the manager blends in a little too much with the background to really bring you in and get you involved with her story. Sandra’s story should be the one where we see her as ignorant and are then bought around to her way of thinking in a sympathetic way, but the emotion just isn’t deep enough to achieve that.

Everyone is fair game though, and all the characters go through their own journey (to put it in a cliché, Hollywood style). The events are perhaps dealt with a little too clinically to deliver the required emotion to bring this movie to the next level, but as said before tension abounds and you do feel yourself willing the characters to find out the truth before something else horrible happens.

The script suited the direction and the events. A real life look and aesthetic is achieved, as well as realistic dialogue for the most part. Some of the dialogue does seem to be trying to bring across an undertone of darker humour, but doesn’t really come across as moving. In fact, it’s so inconsequential I could be talking utter rubbish. As if anyone could notice the difference.

The narrative does well to imply that events continue afterwards, but falls to the ‘text on screen’ solution, simplifying the emotion and merely telling us what happens instead of implying it. When this happens in any film, there seems to be a feeling of the story just deciding to stop, whereas the best give glimpses of what’s going to happen next but definitively end one tale before the next begins.

Overall, the film isn’t and doesn’t seem to try to be controversial. It’s about manipulation of people and the lengths people are willing to go when they’re convinced by an authority figure saying it’s okay. It’s a story that’s perhaps a little detached, meaning any lasting impression isn’t as hard hitting as it could’ve been.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ 

Matt Smith

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