Director: Craig Zobel
Runtime: 90 minutes
Craig Zobel's Compliance acts as a perfect counterweight to Ben Affleck's Argo. Both films are rooted in true stories, yet their difference in tone, scale, and execution are worlds apart. Argo succeeds because of its first rate Hollywood craftsmanship, while Zobel's film, despite its share of imperfections, works because of how flash-free intimacy. Unsettling, but never over the top or manipulative, Compliance is a gripping true-life thriller that paints a troubling portrait of how easily our resolve can crumble at the suggestion of authority.
Set in a small town, Compliance takes place largely over a single day at a fictional fast food restaurant. Manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) has had an unpleasant start to her day, so she quietly takes it out on her staff by lecturing them about proper procedure and responsibility. Yet minutes later, she slides into a conversation in an attempt to feel like she's truly on the same level as her underlings. Among her staff is Becky (Dreama Walker), a solid employee who usually does her best when at work. Things take an unexpected turn, however, when Sandra receives a call from a man claiming to be Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) with the local police. Daniels insists that a member of Sandra's staff, which turns out to be Becky, stole money directly out of a customer's purse earlier in the day. He asks Sandra to detain Becky until he or a co-worker arrives.
The strength of Compliance lies in how it (usually) keeps its events grounded on the narrative's small scale. This is not a hostage drama (well, not exactly), nor is it an unrelenting assault of human cruelty. Daniels' increasingly disturbing instructions progress with a sense of logic that makes sense. The situation starts innocently enough, but eventually evolves into something more sinister.
Where the film trips up comes down to how it balances character with the situation. We know these events (perhaps not exactly, but in the general sense) happened, yet Compliance doesn't go quite deep enough to provide a look at Sandra's rationale. The obvious question is, even with 'Daniels' masquerading as a police officer, why would Sandra (or the others brought in to watch over Becky) barely put up any resistance to the more extreme instructions? The ensemble is strong, and Dowd is truly excellent, but there are times when the slight thinness of the characters sticks out, even as the actors deliver on the emotional front. Spelled-out, direct answers would have been disastrous, but Compliance's script could have used a few more deftly inserted hints to give us a deeper understanding. The actors still make the most of the material. We may not know quite enough about their personalities, but we get a strong sense of where they are in the moment, which pays off nicely. Dowd is the true MVP, however, as her briefly sketched out character details add up the most upon reflection. The actress hits a home run as Sandra, capturing the subtle shifts the character undergoes without turning her into a wrathful, two-faced schemer.
Zobel's direction largely makes up for the flaws in the film's writing, and the scenes, most of which involve at least someone against against a phone, are never overheated. Most impressive is his treatment of the film's more unpleasant scenes, which arrive in the last act. Zobel allows the images to tell us enough, yet never shows too much or allows the icky stuff to feel sleazy. And, despite a simplistic color palette, DP Adam Stone gives the film an appropriately dim, but never rough or lazy, look. Less successful is the score. Its first appearance gets the film off on the right track, yet all following uses often feel grating and overbearing. It's in this one area that Compliance feels like it's trying to become a much bigger story than it really is.
Yet even though Zobel's film, his second feature, has its share of problems, it also has enough worth praising that it's worth a look. The pacing occasionally lags in the second act, but the naturally developed atmosphere is more than admirably executed. Throw in a mostly compelling screenplay and a handful of gripping performances, and you have one of 2012's hidden gems. Zobel never quite expands his vision enough to satisfyingly explore issues regarding authority and obedience, yet he captures the specific narrative with enough successes that Compliance still feels complete, albeit rather slight.