As another insidious prankster said in a 2008 crime thriller, "Let's wind the clocks back a year." Around this time we were in a relatively similar position of the year, be it with more reasons for hope than this year has given us. I'm rather confident that Hope Springs is no The Help, and Dredd 3D is likely no Drive, but 2012 has found its equivalent to a film that released around this period of last year. Steven Soderbergh's Contagion was, as usual for the director, a tight mainstream propelled thriller with ace atmospherics and a stylistic coda to keep to. More than anything, however, it was a case study in a subject that we suddenly could not stop thinking about.
Where Soderbergh's film had me squirming all over in realization of the abundance of germs shortly afterwards, Compliance raises a not quite so immediate post-screening reaction. The impact of the film isn't so much one that can be felt at face value, and the effect of it is not what it achieves onscreen, but what it has the audience poring over in retrospect.
The film follows the employees of a fast food restaurant when they receive a phone call from somebody claiming to be a police officer, with emphasis on the "claiming". It's never believed by the audience that the person on the other side of the phone is who they say they are, which instantly sets up a barrier between the audience and these characters who will soon become more intimately shown to us than they, or us for that matter, would be comfortable with. Compliance deals largely with two lead individuals, being shop manager Sandra and young female employee Becky, both played with succinct simplicity by Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker, respectively, be it in vastly different ways.
The request for Becky to be strip-searched is not one we would expect to see covered over a feature-length time frame, but there's a paramount suspension of disbelief in introduction to this plotline. As we are never fooled for a moment, we have to buy into the fact that these characters would not question the identity of this perceived law enforcer. It's not for us but for them, and while these characters are not necessarily dim witted, they are naive by some measure. Perhaps it's common practice for somebody to automatically trust law enforcement that causes Sandra to instantly buy into his claim of being a cop.
It may have been a more intimate and challengingly decisive thing to keep Becky and Sandra as strictly in the inner circle, but the restaurant employees and even Sandra's prospective fiance are brought into this debacle. It becomes less and less likely for something like this to happen, and Compliance dials rather too highly into the thriller notes later on in the film. Permanently breaking the barrier between us and the phone prankster is possibly the worst mistake director Craig Zobel makes. In a move to show the perversion of the idle individual making this call, much of the mystery is taken out of the film's sails.
Not that Compliance is an aggressive potboiler, but seeing the man on the other end of the line undercuts the film's intention. So much tension lies in not knowing what kind of figure this perverted monster looks like. Seeing him allows us to put too much of our anger directly onto him, rather than the people who perpetrate these acts. Among what the film does well is a certain ambiguity towards Sandra and the people who are directly exploiting Becky at the whims of the caller. It would be cruel to say that Sandra absolutely wanted to break Becky down like that, but a scene earlier on in the film hints at some underlying jealousy at Becky's youth and the opportunities available to her.
What makes Compliance effective is a heavy atmospheric mind, knowing how to increasingly accentuate the grime and bubbles of this fast food establishment it takes place in. As the walls are broken down between Becky's physicality and the caller, the camera follows suit placing more emphasis on the painfully awkward faces of the characters in the room. In a film that's almost procedural to a fault, near-constantly with some character on the phone, the emphasis on emotion, or despondent lack thereof, puts the horror in our room. Also effective in making you concerned about this situation are the performances of the cast, mainly Dowd and Walker.
Walker buries a desperation somewhere in her gut, putting on a malleable face of discontent as the film takes advantage of her further and further, and she relents. Dowd meanwhile has a continuously uncomfortable, but never quite uneasy look on her face, as she repeatedly tries to keep things light and professional, ignorant of the fact that they've moved far beyond that threshold. Commendations also go out to Bill Camp, whose time onscreen serves as uncomfortably shoehorned into these almost routine acts of cruelty.
What keeps Compliance from falling through isn't the "based on a true story" tag which ultimately does not quite factor into my view of the picture. I am certain that things like this do really happen, but the card at the start of the film faded through an American flag is rather too earnest a statement, even if it raises hairs slightly about this beautiful country of ours. Without that, Compliance works most effectively as a piece of tightly wired horror cinema, and that alone puts it above needing any real world parallels to cause us to question what it means in relation to us. We live in a world of facebook, twitter, and phone conversations. After seeing Compliance, any transaction with an unseen party is given an associative tension, much like the titular act gives Sandra and her group an associative evil.
Bottom Line: Compliance is Soderbergh meets Cronenberg, invoking palpable disgust and real world trepidations in spite of procedural inclinations and true story claims.