Compliance, written and directed by Craig Zobel, is a horribly effective reconstruction of one of a series of disturbing episodes involving malicious prank calls to fast food restaurants that took place in the US a few years ago. A highly plausible and devastatingly manipulative caller would pose on the telephone as a high ranking police officer investigating a fictitious theft supposedly perpetrated by one of the cashiers – in the example played out here the combination of a stressed-out manager and some unfortunate failures of communication meant that the consequences of the call went some way beyond the mere humiliating.
Coming in at a brisk ninety minutes Compliance wastes no time with set-up, dropping us straight in at the start of an evening shift at a branch of Chickwich. The way that events unfold in this one location in not-quite-real-time reminds me a bit of the contained hostage siege of Dog Day Afternoon, though this film has none of the humour and warmth of that classic: instead, we get a gradually escalating ordeal, with the mysterious caller’s initially fairly reasonable requests for his suspect to be detained pending the arrival of the police somehow leading to demands for her to be strip-searched, and worse. Zobel’s skill in selling the predicament and giving the audience enough reasons not to scream “why doesn’t somebody just call the police and check?” at the screen is formidable, and he’s helped by some spot-on casting, with Ann Dowd as the put-upon supervisor having to make difficult judgement calls while trying to keep the customers happy and Pat Healy as the sinuously crafty voice at the end of the line particularly impressive. You can’t quite believe where this all ends up, but a title card at the start of the film assures us that no details were exaggerated, and there’s no one step in the incremental raising of the stakes that stands out as the point where someone should really have put the phone down. It’s so well staged and unrelenting that I found it actually quite gruelling to watch and was definitely relieved to get to the closing section, in which the scale of one man’s crimes and the terrible effects he had on many people’s lives were made clear. I’d hesitate to recommend this as a feelgood night out, but it’s brilliantly made, and makes its point about the dangers of blindly acquiescing to an authoritative voice with mortifying clarity.