This is undoubtedly one of the most harrowing films of the year, a constant uncomfortable escalation of tension and dread that plays like a tightening vise. What makes it so intense is how Zobel easily draws us into the realism of the situation. The production design feels so specifically worn-down and ordinary. The greasy yellow uniforms of the employees, the weathered signage littering the kitchen and halls, and the slimy tiles of the backroom ooze with the feeling of commonplace, everyday accoutrements of a minimum-wage customer service job. As the work day begins, the manager (Ann Dowd), a middle-aged woman who struggles to connect with her younger employees, is stressed out by nothing more than looming corporate anger because of an unknown shift worker’s mishandling of the freezer. It’s an ordinary day in an ordinary place.
At the height of the evening rush the phone call comes. The voice on the other end (Pat Healy) introduces himself as Officer Daniels and says that he has a woman in his office complaining that an employee at the restaurant stole money from her purse. The suspect is blonde, he says. “Becky?” replies the manager. “That’s right,” the voice says. It’s a scene of rapidly accumulating unease. The manager’s clearly making a mistake, falling right into his trap that plays out across the screen in much the same way Dorothy is bamboozled by the phony wizard in the sepia tone Kansas of The Wizard of Oz. But the consequences here are far more dangerous.
It’s easy to see how easily the manager falls for it. She’s harried, busy, preoccupied. Once she misses the initial warning signs, once she’s unknowingly taking part in the caller’s deception, it’s harder to back out even as the situation escalates. Becky (Dreama Walker) is brought into the manager’s office and the search begins. First, her purse and phone are taken away and scrutinized at the caller’s request. Then, she turns out her pockets. Then she disrobes. At each escalation, there are hesitations and negotiations between the women and the supposed policeman on the other end of the line. What makes the film so edge-of-the-seat suspenseful is not necessarily that the ending is in doubt – although “how bad will it get?” is certainly an urgent pins-and-needles question – but because the behavior every step of the way is at once believable and inscrutable.
This is a film that has no time for a wide shot. After the film’s opening establishing shots, Zobel and cinematographer Adam Stone hold the camera close. The central horror unfolds in tight medium shots and close-ups, trapping the audience in a position to study the emotions on the actors’ faces. Dowd and Walker have moments where their heads fill the frame and we see doubt, pain, and pleading confusion twitch in their muscles. Zobel observes each and every squirm in ways that faintly recall nothing less than the powerful close-ups of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. This approach to the material wouldn’t work if the performances weren’t so great and precise. Dowd’s painful, and painfully understandable, initial lapse of judgment is bad enough, but the continual creepy descent into powerlessness that Walker goes through, a wringer of humiliations and degradations, is almost physically difficult to watch.
Together, these two actresses navigate these scenes with sharp emotional reflexes. Dowd’s performance grows creepy at times as we watch the growing extent to which she’ll ignore doubt about the situation to penetrate the buzz of regular restaurant duties in her busy mind. But what’s truly terrifying and sorrowful is how completely she allows herself to believe the voice on the phone, even feeling a sense of pride when he congratulates her on all her help. Walker’s performance is just as stunning, a fearlessly emotionally naked performance. Her bright-eyed employee feels so immediately real in her first scenes that by the time she’s held captive by her own boss, it’s no wonder it becomes unbearable to watch. All the while, there’s the buzz of Healy’s voice over the phone. It’s a slippery performance, a work of convincing matter-of-fact sadism, that is spiky and deeply upsetting. Zobel forces the audience to sit uncomfortably with these characters held hostage, played with a sick puppeteer’s skill by nothing more than a thoroughly normal-sounding voice on the other end of the phone. It’s this immediacy that makes the film so powerful an exploration. This is a film that regards the behavior of its characters with precision, refusing to explicitly explain and rarely looking away.
It is an instant legend that many in the audience for the Sundance premiere of Compliance walked out and that a question and answer session afterwards was contentious. I saw the film just a couple of weeks ago in a festival setting and the screening shed nearly a fourth of the audience by the time it was over. This is a film that gets up under the skin with deeply upsetting subject matter, but I don’t think that’s what upsets some so. The visceral discomfort comes not from exploitation of the true story or of the actresses involved, but from the film’s deeply felt empathy with the characters and the situation. That’s not to say Zobel lets any character escape the full implications of their actions, but that he allows the characters to be who they are without cheap demonization. It’s all too easy to sit in a comfortable seat in the dark and scoff at the screen. What’s far more difficult is to watch a terrible situation enacted on the screen and come to think about it seriously in an attempt to arrive at some kind of understanding.
Why did the caller do what he did? We may never know and the film provides no answers. Similarly, there are no easy answers to the behavior of the manager and those she ropes in to help her carry out the caller’s orders, just as it’s not easy to watch an energetic young woman slowly lose power over herself and her situation. But what Zobel provides is a chance to view sensational material from a sober, clinical viewpoint. It’s not easy, but it’s a strong effort, a simple provocation and a work of powerful filmmaking.