Film Review: Compliance


Compliance is just about one of the most abhorrent films I’ve ever seen.

In 2007, there were 70 exceptional cases were reported across to the American Police department. While they all had their own, unsettling idiosyncrasies, they were all loosely connected by subterfuge and prank calls. This is no Steve Penk or The Jerky Boys, but real vile cases of human maltreatment.

It’s an extraordinary topic that is crying out to be debunked in an explorative, Errol Morris style documentary. Compliance isn’t that film.

Writer/director Craig Zobel decides to focus this seeming pandemic on one exceptional example, based on a mélange of different real cases to make one mega-horrific fictional one. It’s just another regular day at an Ohio fast food chain, until a meticulous prank caller convinces the restaurant manager (Ann Dowd) that one of her employees Becky, Gossip Girl‘s Dreama Walker, is being accused of stealing from a customer. What proceeds is a manipulating interrogation, where everyone idly agrees to whatever increasingly insane task the caller will have them do. Why? Without proving any of his credentials, the prank caller deceives everyone involved into believing that he is a police officer, and thus establishing his unobjectionable authority. By Compliance‘s nasty end, Becky is naked, humiliated, and sexually violated, and the audience are accomplices; watching on through guarded eyes and clenched fists.

Even though the story comes from a bastardised real place, Zobel really pushes the boundaries of plausibility. Not in a “stranger than fiction” way, but rather because the characterisation, narrative, and Zobel’s misguided compulsion to tell it, is shallow. The ninety minute running time lingers for what feels like days and, whilst the repetitious sequences are relatively tame and implicit, it all feels incredibly ugly and exploitative; as if Zobel is forcing the audience to watch a security camera.

At it’s most tenuous, one could wring-out a slapdash argument that the film is forcing the audience to look at this injustice like a reflexive meta-narrative, like Haneke’s Funny Games. Unlike the unflinchingly austere Austrian, Zobel lacks directorial flare and balls to actually critique or comment on the true events and populace servility to the law.

Even when the film was snapped up at the Sundance Film Festival last year, it was met with notoriety, with walkouts and boos. Later, in a public Q&A, Zobel plainly admitted that the film is misogynistic. But for what reason? Zobel is trying to be forthright and polemical with Compliance, but simply projecting these images isn’t enough to warrant a political license. An artless, meaningless, pseudo-video nasty that doesn’t earn the discomfort it will leave you with.

☆☆☆☆☆ (0 stars)

7 thoughts on “Film Review: Compliance

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Excellent review. Here’s my take on this film:
    Though “Compliance” does not claim to be a horror movie, it is. It is an exploitation horror film in the genre of the infamous “I Spit On Your Grave” from the early 80’s and “Cannibal Holocaust” another “true to life” charmer from the same era. I greatly enjoy a good horror film and I even like being shocked by them sometimes. I’ve seen some really horrific ones in my time too, such as the two from the 80’s I mentioned above (which I DO NOT recommend, BTW). I’m not squeamish. I finish movies once I start watching them too. I usually don’t have to stop and come back to them four times like I did with “Compliance”, but I always finish them. And in this case, I’m sorry I did. This is because “Compliance” has an utter lack of respect for its characters, lead actress, and audience members as well as being intellectually insulting due to the lack of understanding its director has of the subject matter he chose to tackle while making it.

    If the true nature of the subject matter in “Compliance” were about our basic human need to follow any authority figure, even anonymous ones, no matter what they tell us to do, as the director Mr. Zobel states, then why not alter the story just a bit by having the store clerk, who is sexually victimized in the film quite graphically, be an overweight 52 year old hulking male with a tattoo of the Anti-Christ on his chest rather than a very young, attractive blonde woman who is barely 18? Because it matters who the victim is or the film fails to make a profit or even get made. Just like the “prank call strip” scheme would’ve failed in real life for the real perpetrator had he not VERY carefully picked his victims and scoped out their work situations BEFORE trying to voyeuristic-ally abuse them. The real life perpetrator of these crimes targeted very specific places to call and he targeted young girls because he got off on listening to them and watching them be degraded by the authority figures they were afraid to say “NO” to. Please, tell me the store manager depicted in the film as a kindly middle aged woman about 50, would have so readily demanded a large hulking older male clerk submit to a body cavity search because a “cop” on the phone insisted on it. She wouldn’t even try. She would be far more afraid of the large hulking employee getting pissed off and breaking her neck than she would be of an anonymous “cop”caller.

    The issue here is power and how the power we sometimes have over others can lead us to do horrible things to them under the right set of circumstances. This is not a film or a story about 3 college kids being asked to shock 3 other college kids in an experiment because their professor is telling them they have to no matter how much pain they are inflicting. It is not the story of Nazi Germany and the rule of that country by an evil dictatorship that was so invasive and total that even the gentlest of German souls felt compelled to be card carrying Party members and do horrible things to other human beings out of a fear of horrible things being done to them if they didn’t. It was not at all necessary for Zobel to reenact the real crime on film for us to view or for the actress to have to endure its reenactment upon her, though obviously not for real. How must the real victim of this horrible crime feel knowing her most humiliating and painful moments in life are on display like a circus freak show for all to see? A good director would not have shown this horror show. We already know it is awful. That isn’t the point. Showing it like it was in this film is exploitation cinema. Period.

    The true nature of this story and this film is about the victimization of women and how vulnerable some people are to the people with direct authority over them taking any opportunity they can to abuse it. The perpetrator of the crank strip search calls chose not only his victims carefully, but also his accomplishes, for that’s exactly what any store manager is who used an anonymous call as the impetus to sexually abuse his or her young female employees. They would NOT have done so to a big hulking man. And on the odd chance such a scenario did happen, no film maker would make a film like this about it because no one, and I mean no one, will sit through a film where a 52 year old overweight hulking man is graphically given a detailed cavity search by a 50 year old woman because an anonymous caller told her to.

    “Compliance” is childish, boyish film making by a director who needs to grow up before he’s allowed to make another film like this again. Or barring that, he at least needs to be as honest as the makers of “I Spit On Your Grave” and admit he’s making an exploitation of women film. Inexcusable film making by an over grown man-boy. Shame on you Mr. Zobel. Shame on you.

      • Yes. Sorry about that. Wasn’t thinking. Some cop was calling me and telling me I needed to do a body cavity search on my dog cause he stole someone’s wallet. I was under the spell of anonymous authority.

    • im sorry but some of ur point I dont agree with. r u really comparing a young attractive 18 year old to using a man with muscles? and do u really think the mangaer wouldn’t have complied if it was a man and not becky? for all we know if they did use a man instead of a young girl, he probably would have complied as well. it IS possible, grown men have been shown to conform before in obedience experiments. so why not? instead of desciding whether or not something is implausible or unlikely, u should probably do ur own research. and ur not being objective, this is obviously and affectively based opinion of yours

      • Watching a film and taken enjoyment/anything from it shouldn’t rely on me to do some prior research in the subject matter. That job is solely down to the filmmaker themselves. While I am not doubting Zobel’s research, Compliance is a film that does a disservice not only to it’s money paying audience, but to the people and scenarios he is portraying. For me, I found the film wholly vacuous and exploitative. I never laughed, but the film plays out like a gross parody.

  2. I actually thought the film was effective, insofar as it conveyed the complete story to the audience without feeling overly voyeuristic. Would a more experienced or daring director have actually bothered to make commentary on the issue? Perhaps – but simply sharing the story is still a valuable contribution to the social consciousness, I think.

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