The Milgram experiment in the ’60s demonstrated that many of us will torture another human being if an authority figure tells us to do so. Similarly, Compliance is based on a real incident in 2004 where a phone call from a man who claimed to be a police officer was received by a McDonald’s manager who was instructed to hold and interrogate a teenage employee for a charge of theft. The conversation went on for over three hours, and the caller’s instructions got more and more outrageous. No transcripts of the exchange exists, which led writer/director Craig Zobel (Great World of Sound) to imagine the details.
Sandra (Ann Dowd) is the manager of a chicken fast food joint. Her employees include a pretty young blonde named Becky (Dreama Walker) who is more interested in her cell phone cover than she is in her job. When Sandra receives a phone call from a police officer who describes Becky and accuses her of stealing from a customer, the claim seems real enough. Soon, the officer is asking Sandra to go further and further in the interrogation, testing both of their boundaries. Due to a busy day in the restaurant, Sandra must pass the phone and responsibility onto others, including employees and her drunken fiancé. Some are willing to follow the caller’s outlandish demands; others aren’t.
Filled with superior performances, Compliance does everything within its power to make a far-fetched situation believable. Ann Dowd gives a nuanced portrayal. Dreama Walker takes on a difficult role and delivers. Pat Healy, as the caller, is dead-on creepy, and Bill Camp, as the bumbling fiancé, is perfectly cast. The actors have to be strong since it’s such a confined script, taking place mostly within the supply room of the restaurant. Unfortunately, that confinement makes it feel a bit too stagey and theatrical. It’s a minor flaw that is mostly eradicated by Zobel’s fine writing. What’s more difficult to get over is the tenability of the situation. Continually, one asks, “Could this really happen?“ Apparently, it can, and the film makes the point a few times that similar situations have happened more than seventy times over a ten-year period. It’s a conceit that one can accept or not. Whatever the case, it’s a frightening thought to realize that people can be so gullible and susceptible to the whims of authority. Is it our desire to please, our desire for structure or is authority simply tapping into our propensity for wrongdoing?
Director: Craig Zobel
Writers: Craig Zobel
Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger, James McCafrey
Release Date: Aug. 17, 2012