“Inspired by true events.” “Based on a true story.” Those are two common phrases that sometimes precede a fiction film and tell the audience that a similar occurrence in real life is the basis of the film. The key words are “Inspired by” and “Based on,” not “true.” This is still a fictional film, which means it needs to work not just as a dramatization but as drama. Films that focus on telling a story need good writing and strong characters. If the true events that inspired the film are of the more outlandish variety, the film ought to convince us that they happened with its images, not just by telling us at the beginning.
Compliance, Craig Zobel’s sophomore feature, begins with those words, lacks a good script, and fails to convince [SPOILERS AHEAD, although I knew nothing of the film going in and figured it out almost immediately]. I believe that a malicious caller posing as a cop was able to convince a manager of a fast-food restaurant to strip-search an employee. I even believe that the same caller was able to convince others to force the employee to do jumping jacks and even give oral sex. But I believe these things because I have heard about them, not because Compliance convinces me. When “Officer Daniels” first calls and tells Sandra (Ann Dowd, in a film-saving performance), the manager of a ChickWich fast-food restaurant, that one of her employees stole money from a customer’s purse, his actions immediately seemed off to me. He tells the accused Becky (Dreama Walker) that the theft victim “described you perfectly” before the cop can see Becky and verify it himself, and his insistence that a surveillance unit can corroborate the theft claim is at odds with the fact that there are no cops on the way to talk in person. Surveillance cameras in a fast-food restaurant are, after all, the property of the restaurant, not the police. They would have to ask to see it, and there are obviously no police officers to witness.
So the jig is up fairly quickly, but Sandra nevertheless agrees to strip search Becky and to take all her clothes and put them into the passenger seat of her car and leave it unlocked so the police can retrieve it later. The events are hard to believe, so Compliance has quite a difficult task in selling it, but it does not succeed. Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) is not convincing enough in what he says (despite Healy’s best efforts), which makes the subsequent, increasingly outlandish occurrences even less believable.
This is where Zobel makes a fatal mistake. He decides to show the caller sitting around at home making sandwiches and demands. Zobel claims that he chose to show the caller early in the film because he didn’t want the reveal to feel like a “twist,” but with how obvious the script makes it, it would not have been a twist at all. The audience members who do figure it out would likely still have problems enjoying the film, but not to the same extent. The removal of constant cutting to the caller would prevent the feel that Zobel is telling us to enjoy his “prank,” and it would also create more sympathy for Sandra and the other workers. When we constantly get to see the caller, it changes from questions about misuse of authority to a blame game. “How can you be so stupid? He’s obviously not a cop!” are words that will recur in your head, if not out loud, several times. More importantly, though, members of the audience who are more gullible (or less skeptical, if the script was a bit better) would get to have the same reaction as the characters. “How could I be so stupid? It was obvious all along.” Then the film’s implicit question on authority and how we accept it rather blindly would be much more powerful. All the signs that should have been obvious tip-offs but weren’t would make the story one hundred times more believable. Instead, Compliance feels like a perverse game of cat-and-mouse that we should derive pleasure from watching. If the caller was kept off screen, as a faceless voice of authority, the film would have been far more effective. As is, it forces us to condescend to the characters and makes the entire narrative unconvincing (particularly when Sandra’s fiancé begins to watch Becky and demands become increasingly outlandish). The only remedying possibility is that Sandra is trying to “get back” at Becky for a quip she overhears earlier, but there is no evidence to support this. The one time Sandra shows any sign of enjoyment in what she is actually doing is when her fiancé is with Becky (a baffling scene for many reasons) that greatly diminishes that possibility.
Structural problems go much further, though. The B plot, about the restaurant being swamped on a day when supplies are low because of worker-error the night before, is almost entirely useless. It gives Sandra reason to leave, yes, but the shifting of focus to it adds no thematic weight or even entertainment value. What it could do, and is likely intended to do, is develop the characters, but all attempts at characterization are flat and grating. From the initial conversation between Becky, Sandra, and co-supervisor Marti about boys and sexting to the role of Kevin, a potential love-interest, disobedient worker, and the first person to object vocally to Officer Daniels, no one is particularly interesting. The sole black employee, meanwhile, is so stereotypically developed that it borders on offensive.
Also approaching offensive territory is the exploitation of Dreama Walker as the victimized employee. Zobel tries to avoid overt fetishization of the crime (although again, showing the caller so soon does not help him here), and he shoots the most disturbing acts rather tastefully—we know exactly what is happening but do not see it clearly—but there are a few troublesome topless shots that threaten to unravel the attempts at tastefulness.
Really though, the whole film is tasteless. This is empty representation that forces us to hate the victims, perhaps on the basis of class, and fails to actually say anything about compliance, authority, education, or make any connection to any number of relevant issues. Perhaps Compliance is too competent to actually be one of the worst films in years (although every time Zobel opts for a close-up, I second-guess myself), but it is certainly one of the most misguided. The film’s virtues can best be described by the adage about the blind squirrel (the exception is the performances, not just of Dowd but Walker and Healy and the supporting cast as well) but its vices are too numerous to count.