Reviewed by: Sophie Monks Kaufman

"The bottom falls out of sanity in a way that, despite being based on real events, feels deeply unsatisfactory."

When it premiered at Sundance, there were walk outs, squeals of protests and - from those who made it to the end - a bucket full of antagonistic questions leveled at director Craig Zobel. At London Film Festival, the walk outs continued.

So that you don’t waste your entrance fee, be aware that Compliance features a peculiar and sickening transition from the bland everyday to physical and psychological abuse and you would be entirely forgiven for not wanting to put yourself through it. If you know anything about Zimbardo or Milgram’s experiments into obedience then you’ve got the ammunition to debate the central issue of what people are capable of doing when they believe the buck stops at a person of higher authority.

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Like a rose in bloom in the centre of a nightmare is Becky (Dreama Walker), a server working at ChickWich, a fictional fast-food restaurant in the south of America. Shortly after we’ve become acquainted with the bright yellows, oranges and perpetual hissing of fryers that colour this workplace, Becky’s stressed manager Pat (Ann Dowd) gets a call from a man identifying himself as ‘Officer Daniels’ who claims a server fitting Becky’s description stole from a woman he has with him. At Daniels’ request, Pat fetches and detains Becky who protests her innocence.

Psychological insight coupled with official jargon and knowledge of when to get nasty is the combination that unlocks Pat’s trust in this voice on the phone. Played initially with reluctance and eventually with the pride of a child who’s pleased teacher, Dowd hits the complex notes of a character so unsympathetically dupable that you want to reach though the screen and shake her.

After a first act composed of uncomfortable verbal negotiations between Pat, Becky and Officer Daniels, the tension and power play suddenly drops at sickening and startling speed to a whole new level of darkness. The bottom falls out of sanity in a way that, despite being based on real events, feels deeply unsatisfactory. Characters are walked into the back room where the drama takes place for the sole purpose of making things worse. Sure, it all happened but from a story point of view, it doesn’t add up to anything more than the repeated jabbing of the same awful note. How bad can it get before a sensible adult chances on proceedings?

Walker isn’t called upon to do much apart from act stunned, which means she functions mainly as a gorgeous object, a victim of the storyline but also of strangely muted direction. Compliance has a ghastly power and a relentlessly focused script that sucks you into the plausibility of some of the decisions made along the slippery moral road. However, it relies too heavily on its source material, presuming that loyalty equals integrity. Once the shock of the home truth beneath it wears off, you’re left with a whole lot of negative space.

Reviewed on: 24 Oct 2012
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A drama based on the real life case of fast food restaurant employees who abused vulnerable young people on the orders of a stranger on the phone who claimed to be investigating shoplifting.
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Read more Compliance reviews:

David Graham ****

Director: Craig Zobel

Writer: Craig Zobel

Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger, James McCaffrey, Matt Servitto, Ashlie Atkinson, Nikiya Mathis, Ralph Rodriguez, Stephen Payne, Amelia Fowler, John Merolla, Desmin Borges, Matt Skibiak

Year: 2012

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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