Compliance – review

Don’t pick up the phone

The single most important detail in Compliance is the inclusion of the disclaimer in its opening credits. Up on the screen, in black and white, we are told that everything that is about to follow actually did happen in real life and that nothing - nothing – has been exaggerated.

Why is this detail so important? Because, frankly, without it large bells of cynicism would be ringing cacophonously in audience’s ears from about fifteen minutes into the film.

Brought to us via writer/director Craig Zobel, Compliance grabs us by the eyeballs and drags us through the creepy gutter of sleaze. Part psychological horror, part warped thriller he reconstructs one episode in the very true story of the “strip search prank call scam” – a series of incidents that occurred throughout the US in the early 2000s.

Don’t be fooled by the throwaway “prank call” label though: this is definitely not a skit from MTV’s Jackass. These incidents weren’t silly, adolescent fun. Instead, they involved men posing as a police officers, calling fast food restaurants and persuading managers to conduct thorough strip searches of female employees.

In his examination of one such occurrence, Zobel continually brings his audience a little too close to proceedings for comfort. He shoots nearly everything in close up, forcing us to invade the characters’ personal spaces, which makes watching the film a very claustrophobic affair. Zobel traps his audiences and, from the outset, his intentions are blazingly obvious: he wants us to become voyeurs to the horrible events unfolding up on screen.

And voyeurs we become. To watch Compliance is to watch a helpless young woman being physically, mentally and, ultimately, sexually abused for over ninety minutes. Although we are never actually confronted with really strong imagery (nudity is only partial and sex is only suggested rather than a series of explicit shots), we are instead lurking in the shadows or peeking around a corner, unable to do anything but watch through our fingers. It is stifling and relentlessly uncomfortable viewing.

It is perhaps because of this notion Compliance can now boast the rather dubious honor of having the single largest amount of walkouts I have ever seen in a cinema. Close to 40% of its audience had left by the time the credits rolled (all of whom, interestingly enough, were women).

The film’s initial reference to the Milgrim experiment makes this statistic even more interesting, and does beg a few questions. Were those of us who chose to remain (some 60% of the original audience, nearly all of whom were male) in someway compliant to events too? Were we sitting in the theatre, being subjected to an extremely distressing experience, because we paid for a cinema ticket and finishing a film is what one is expected to do?

But these questions, and others raised, are almost completely ignored. Zobel succeeds in making us voyeurs to this horrible chain of events, but to what end? Is it just for the sake of irony? A juvenile satire perhaps? The film’s epilogue (featuring the superb Ann Dowd) does dip its toes somewhat in  examining why the manager allowed the incident to happen with no question (despite the extreme requests), but the scene feels naked and bolted on.

I left the screening feeling that a documentary, maybe akin to last year’s brilliant The Imposter, would probably have served the subject matter far better than any dramatization could have. At least with a more journalistic approach we may have discovered more about why this could have happened over and over again — and a more thorough examination of the crime scenes, and psychological cases such as Milgrim and the Stanford Prison Experiment.

But maybe this desire to tie everything up with nice, tight clinical bows is not the point of Compliance. Maybe there is no motivation for this highlighted crime. Some may argue sexual perversions but, at least in this film, Pat Healy‘s monster seems more obsessed with power than lust. His performance, while never quite as haunting as Kiefer Sutherland‘s in Phone Booth (the more ostentatious cousin of this subject) did remind me of those disturbing Bruce Springsteen lyrics from his song Nebraska: “They wanted to know why I did what I did. Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world…”

It is this that is the overwhelming sentiment in Compliance and, while it is a more than competently made film, I never wish to see it again.

Rating: 2/5

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Christopher Preston

Writer, reviewer, lover of film and television, world explorer, geek. Studied BA English Literature and MA Creative Writing at the University of Exeter. Also known as Heisenberg. If found please return to nearest cinema.

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About Christopher Preston 15 Articles
Writer, reviewer, lover of film and television, world explorer, geek. Studied BA English Literature and MA Creative Writing at the University of Exeter. Also known as Heisenberg. If found please return to nearest cinema.