Director Craig Zobel is so far known for his website Homestar Runner, featuring strange characters and comedy that was quite popular around 10 years ago. Now, he has made the transition to feature film director with his first movie Compliance, which was a hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and no one will ever look at him the same again.
Compliance is based on a series of true events where a prank caller was able to convince a group of people to emotionally (and eventually, physically) abuse a young fast food employee over the phone by posing as a police officer. The film concerns Becky (Dreama Walker), a fast food employee who is accused of stealing money from a customer by a man on the phone claiming to be a police officer. The manager of the establishment, Sandra (Ann Dowd) is weak-willed enough to believe the voice, and fearing a situation with the police, she complies with all his outrageous demands, each of which gets more ludicrous than the last. As fellow employees get pulled into the commotion, a few have their doubts about the voice on the phone, but all give in to the presumed authority without enough thought to put a stop to it.
Director Zobel shoots the film with an eye for grim detail that will end up making audiences cringe throughout the entire runtime, keeping most of the film in a small back room of the restaurant, without ever languishing so long that things get boring. The cinematography by Adam Stone helps in creating the uncomfortable atmosphere that permeates the runtime and will make your skin crawl on numerous occasions.
The biggest complaint of reviewers so far has been the lack of realism surrounding the situation, but the fact is, this happened over 70 times in 30 different states, making the situation all the more haunting as you watch. As the young employee is mentally and physically tortured via direction from the voice on the phone, you’ll shake your head in disgust wondering how something like this could ever happen, but as it happens, you feel for the characters and their ultimate fear of authority.
A fast food restaurant is the perfect setting for a crime like this, as the manager is too busy with a Friday night rush to really put enough thought into what is happening, and the characters that are pulled into the situation that begin to question her authority over the situation are reprimanded for doing so. The most haunting scenes come when Sandra’s boyfriend Van (Bill Camp) is asked to watch over the girl as a guard to make sure she doesn’t escape or hide the supposedly stolen money.
As the abuse goes on via the voice on the phone, audiences will squirm watching the situation spin out of hand as the “police officer” (played to excellent effect by Pat Healy) continues to get his rocks off manipulating these people. Sober-minded viewers will go mad watching the characters make stupid decision after stupid decision, all the way up to rape, before they all realize it’s a terrible hoax and they’ve fallen prey to a simple prank caller. The movie will drive people insane at what should be a simple hang up, instead, it spirals out of control in a realistic way, even if it’s only realistic in the way that people low on the social ladder will do things out of character because of their sheer terror at the prospect of defying authority. All it takes is one person to stand up and say “No, I will not do this”, but it’s amazing to watch how many people refuse to do just that because of their own insecurities.
The film shows what happens throughout the entire episode, all the way to the end where justice is talked about, if not properly served. Compliance is a perfect example of people living in fear of authority, and what people will do when they think they might get into trouble. Craig Zobel has crafted a dynamic film that takes place in the back of a fast food restaurant, and it’s technically superb in every aspect. While the content may seem ludicrous, Zobel brings a certain gravitas to the events in the way he shoots the film, and the cast is excellent all around, especially the terrified face of Dreama Walker throughout the entire runtime. It will make you squirm and shout at the screen on many occasions, which is proof of its effectiveness. Zobel has proven himself a serious talent, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Compliance is now available at most VOD outlets and in limited theaters, so check your local listings.