Compliance (2012), Craig Zobel’s provocative sophomore feature, is an unsettling look at workers in an almost pathological state of subservience. Recalling the Milgram psychological experiments of the 1960s, which demonstrated the blind willingness of subjects to follow authority figures against their own better judgement, Compliance goes a step further by looking at America’s skewed social contract with its blue collar workers. It’s a film which shows the horrifying but plausible consequences of socio-economic conditioning and a culture of mindless striving where procedure is absolute, but dignity is not.
The stories of angry walkouts and fraught Q&As in US screenings uncover an almost atavistic reaction to the film’s imputation of our worrying capacity for obsequiousness. Based on true events which occurred in Mount Washington, Kentucky in 2004, Compliance opens with Sandra (Ann Dowd), a manager of a fast food restaurant, chastising her employees after one of them left a freezer open overnight. Later in the day, the phone rings and Sandra is told she’s speaking to police officer Daniels (Pat Healy).
Daniels tells Sandra that one of her employees, Becky (Dreama Walker), has been accused of stealing money from a customer’s purse and that he has a ‘surveillance unit’ that can verify the complainant’s story. He asks Sandra to search Becky which is the first in a series of events that then escalates out of control Compliance is gripping from the very first scenes. Zobel expertly delineates the professional dynamics between the staff at the restaurant creating a hostile, oppressive atmosphere which gradually builds throughout the film. The scenes play out slowly, giving the audience enough time to see how a particular character is manipulated by Daniels and, later on, to adjust to more improbable events.
By revealing that Daniels is in fact a hoax caller early in the film, Zobel allows the audience’s attention to be drawn to the wider themes at play. The director’s tight control of the material and his skillful discretion in avoiding any sense of prurience serve to cajole the viewer into asking why the events are happening rather than simply becoming infuriated by the characters’ impassivity.
While it’s clear that duress plays a significant role in the blind acquiescence on display, Zobel digs deeper, uncovering troubling trends in corporate culture and highlighting a frightening form of forced mental incarceration among America’s working class. Compliance is a tremendously incisive film; deeply intelligent and clinically compelling.
This review was originally posted on 26 February, 2013, to coincide with the Glasgow Film Festival.