Imagine, if you will, the following scenario. You are the manager of a fast food restaurant in a nondescript town in middle America. Your employees consist of mostly dumb teens who don't respect you and of whom you suspect are always up to no good. They condescend you at every turn and think you are a joke as they play around on their cell phones instead of doing their job. Then one day you get a call, it is a police officer who informs you that he has an eye witness who says one of your employees stole from a customer. The officer refers to your corporate offices and tells you he is in communication with your branch manager as you speak. He gives the name of the employee and asks you to bring them to the back office so that they may talk directly to the accused. Knowing that it is highly possible that one of your employees is capable of such stupidity, you easily agree to the officer's demands.
This is just the jumping off point where everything that follows is manufactured and massaged in a way that starts out completely natural and unknowingly veers into a darker path. The police officer talks to you and lulls you into a state of authority you have never had before, consistently preying on your lack of confidence and ambitious nature to be recognized for more than just a lowly fast food restaurant manager. By praising your efforts to help in this difficult situation it is all too easy to fall into a routine where you begin to trust him implicitly...and why not? He is an officer of the law, he AND YOU are doing YOUR JOB to uncover the truth behind these allegations towards this employee that you yourself have never fully trusted and even have a small semblance of jealousy towards for having a much more carefree and easy going life than you ever did. You are simply trying to help keep your employee out of jail in the end while also abiding the law. After a while you don't even realize what it is you are doing anymore, you just do as you are told. You have been trained to freely comply and don't even realize it and that is when he has you.
First time feature film director Craig Zobel deals head on with a subject that most (this reviewer included) was never even aware of and one that is so ludicrous that if you did not know this was based on actual events (which it lets you know with screen filling text) you would likely never take anything you are about to witness seriously. That is not a failing of the film, it is a conceit that must be used in order to evaluate and examine how something like this could and apparently does happen. Sandra (Ann Dowd) the manager, isn't painted as a hypocrite or even an idiot, she may not be the smartest person ever put in charge of a business but that doesn't outright make her stupid, but that is most likely the word that will continue to pop up as you watch the events at the ChickWich fast food restaurant unfold. It's very easy to judge these individuals and dismiss them as incompetent or at the very least extremely gullible, but when you put into perspective all the pieces that led them to such a dark place, the sudden realization of how easily someone could fall for such a prank becomes frighteningly real.
Essentially this is a story about a predator, a man who feeds off the suffering and humiliation of others and is an expert at manipulation. This is a film about how we ourselves could possibly be forced into a situation beyond our control and before we know it are participating in horrendous acts while consistently being reminded by an authority figure that we are doing it in the name of the law, that there really was no other choice. Soon, we are able to justify to ourselves that we made that 19 year old teenage girl strip down completely naked to search her because we were told to and even applauded for doing it so well. That voice on the other end of that phone is always there to console you and let you know that there is no other way and that it will all be over soon, even though it goes on for hours. Any chance of someone coming to their senses is masterfully overthrown by the caller as he easily manipulates every single person in that room.
You might be asking yourself at this point, how in the world the person being accused of the crime would allow themselves to be victimized like this and once again it all comes down to the masterful manipulation by that voice. Much in the same way that Sandra is subtely being controlled, Becky (Dreama Walker) is constantly being threatened with the possibility of going to jail. Most people would like to believe that if some faceless voice over a telephone was telling you that either you get strip searched by your manager or go to jail, that you would see through the charade and take charge of the situation. But you have to take into account that this is a teenage girl who has been told during each step of this process that she only has to do one thing to make it all end and by the time it goes too far she is broken. What happens to Becky is essentially a rape of the mind. Her innocence is discarded and doing what she and the rest of us have always been told to do (listen to and trust our authority figures) she becomes the victim of a horrendous crime that in reality has no criminal.
The truly terrifying aspect to "Compliance" is that the predator on the phone is nothing more than an instigator, a bystander, someone who influences others to do the horrible atrocities themselves as he listens in. With each new voice on the phone he learns about them, he relentlessly pushes them to do things to Becky that is well beyond their comfort zone, but little touches like convincing Becky to go through with it or go to jail or dealing with someone who is clearly drunk and can be easily manipulated into doing unspeakable things to her makes it easier for him to get his way. The steady escalation from learning about who he is talking to, then using that information on the fly to get people to do what he wants them to do and going from simply questioning Becky to eventually having her captors go from innocent bystanders to full fledged participants is extremely frustrating but fascinating to behold as well. The level of sexual depravity that Becky is forced to endure becomes this nightmarish hell that spirals way out of control until it all eventually ends.
This is a horror story of a different kind, it is made to make you feel as uncomfortable as possible and it does a remarkable job at building up to an inevitable conclusion which will likely anger you. The way the caller uses people's fear and anxieties against them is scary because we all have a weak point and it is sort of nerve racking knowing that it may be possible for someone to prey on those qualities and use them to their advantage and break us. It becomes even more distressing when you learn about the man on the phone, a revelation that comes about mid way through the film with a few last minute surprises near the end. He isn't some sex crazed maniac or your stereotypical stalker, he seems like a guy most anyone would have as their neighbor. How he has these dark desires and how easily it comes to him to lie and force others to harm one another is shocking. He is a normal person for the most part and that is the truly disturbing part of this story.
Ultimately, "Compliance" is an examination at how we can succumb to authority so easily. The fact that something like this happened not once, not twice, not five times but over 70 times is unbelievable. The film doesn't treat this as though it can happen to just about anyone, indeed the circumstances must be right and the people involved must meet a certain psychological profile to be manipulated like this (you get the sense that the caller keeps doing this until he hits a jackpot). How the caller elicits key pieces of information about each and every person he talks to and uses key elements from them to help influence them helps sell this crazy and absurd situation. Zobel has made a fascinating first film that will stick with its viewers for a very long time and uses the single location of the restaurant to great effect.
You will likely be shocked and upset at the many things that Becky goes through and when the film concludes you still aren't given much in the way of satisfaction simply because the damage is done. Whether they catch the guy or not is a moot point. What his intentions were all along doesn't really matter. What happens to Sandra and all the others that particpated in the abuse of Becky is all secondary to the idea that we as human beings have it in us to be suceptable to the influence of authority and possibly be forced to do things that go against our morale code. It may not be this exact situation with people like this in an environment like this, but rest assured that you and all of us have it in us to do similar things. The reason that is such a scary proposition is that no matter who told you to do it, it was you that decided to go through with it and that is absolutely frightening.