Compliance is the kind of film I always hope to love. Ambitious, confrontrational, and very well acted films that rely on theme and character and ideas are jawdroppers for me in a way that explosions, stunts, and visual effects innovations almost never are. But ambitions and soulful actors can only take you so far when fundamental flaws get in their way.
It's best to see Compliance cold (as I did) with no knowledge of its subject matter. Unfortunately it's almost impossible to talk or write about without giving its game away which is why it's a tough sell (it's made $111,000 in limited release) though it's gripping enough should you buy a ticket. So read on at your own risk...
The film is operating on two levels simultaneously, and unfortunately they become combatants due to choices in the direction and screenplay. The surface drama is the true story of a crime perpetrated against fast food workers. On an allegorical level it's a disturbing portrait of the way people bend to authority automatically and naively, eventually willingly sacrificing common sense and instinctual personal morals, merely to not take responsibility and seek praise from someone who will make the difficult decisions for you. The manager Sandra (Ann Dowd, superb and subtle) receives a call from a policeman who informs her that one of her employees, Becky (Dreama Walker, also good) has robbed a customer and the police are coming to investigate. Sandra is asked to hold Becky in the back of the restaurant and search her belongings. The police requests become increasingly bizarre and invasive and you begin to wonder why anyone would trust the disembodied voice. What are these people thinking?!
As the film's psychological horror compounds and more and more of the employees become involved and complicit in the abuse of the alleged thief the film strains credibility. Is no one on to how shady this officer of the law seems to be?
Compliance is based on actual events and it's acted so naturalistically that I struggled to see why I couldn't believe in its reality after the first hour. I finally pinned it down: this is the film that might happen if an American filmmaker decided to make his own Michael Haneke or Lars von Trier provocation. There's a certain level of artistic bravery and, more pointedly, abstraction missing that could have turned this admirable but not entirely successful drama into a tightly wound masterpiece.
Compliance's weird spell breaks in the second half when we move out of the restaurant (sometimes way out of the restaurant and into crime procedural terrain which all but ruined the experience for me). I couldn't help but feel that the film could have been startling and potent if it had been more sterile more minimalist strange or far more hemmed in. Why for instance are we EVER leaving the back of this restaurant? Why can't the voice on the other end of the line remain as mysterious to us as it does to the trapped workers ? Every glimpse into the outside world softens the horror and makes us judge the intellectual capacity of the workers rather than to sympathize with them and admit that we also make mistakes like this (allegorically speaking). It's a pity because you could make a great film about the dark foundational truths at work.
I kept wishing that the film was as claustrophic as François Ozon's Water Drops on Burning Rocks (which you don't even realize for a good long while has never left its single set) or as severe and ominous as Michael Haneke's Caché or as brilliantly abstract and vicious as Dogville. Any film which recalls these has something going for it but its risky company to keep. If you enter this playground, you'd better have the strength to play with ground glass in the sand.
Grade: God I have no idea. C/C-? Nick said it best when he said "Grades are stupid"
Oscar Hopes?: Extreme longshots in the screenplay and acting departments if the film manages to build in limited release. Ann Dowd is something though and she'd better earn a Spirit Award nomination.
P.S. It's probably worth noting that even though I can't really recommend it, I will definitely be curious to check out Craig Zobel's next movie, not just for the failed ambitions (at least he has them!) but for the impossibility of connecting the dots between this miniature breakthrough and his first success, the website Homestar Runner. I can't imagine the mind that would have a hand in creating both.