Film review | Compliance – At this fast-food joint they’ll swallow anything

Dreama Walker in Compliance
Writer-director Craig Zobel’s unnerving psychological thriller Compliance is a film that will get you squirming. You’ll probably also be left angry, dumbfounded and incredulous, and you’ll very likely feel like screaming at the characters on screen, too.

Zobel’s film provokes such extreme emotions because what is unfolding on screen is so unbelievable, yet when the closing credits roll they reveal its chilling basis in fact. Prepare to boggle.

The setting is a busy fast-food joint in Ohio. Harassed middle-aged manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) takes a phone call from an Officer Daniels (Pat Healy). An employee has been accused of stealing money from a customer, he tells her. Blonde, teenage, working on the till. That’ll be Becky (Dreama Walker), she responds. The police are tied up with other cases, continues Daniels. Would Sandra be a public-spirited citizen and sequester and strip-search Becky?

No way, you cry. How can she be sure he’s even a policeman? Surely she must refuse. But Sandra complies, drawing in other employees and even her fiancé Van (Bill Camp) as Becky’s ordeal escalates, orchestrated by Daniels from the other end of the line.

Bill Camp & Dreama Walker in Compliance

You couldn’t make it up. And Zobel hasn’t. Compliance is inspired by – and very closely follows – events that took place at a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Kentucky in 2004.

If you can overcome your disbelief – how could people be so dumb?! – Zobel’s screen version of what happened is deftly persuasive. Frumpy, stressed Sandra fears incurring her bosses’ displeasure and slightly resents the pretty, perky Becky. She defers to authority figures.

All this leaves her open to the slyly manipulative Daniels but it doesn’t make her exceptionally stupid. You only have to recall – and watching Compliance inescapably brings them to mind – the Milgram obedience experiment and the equally notorious Stanford prison experiment to be aware of how blind obedience to authority can get out of hand.

The fact that the events in Compliance are taking place in a fast-foot restaurant is equally resonant. The junk food we see being prepared in this fictional ChickWich couldn’t be more disgusting. Surely, you can’t help but think, anyone prepared to swallow that will swallow anything.

In cinemas from Friday 22nd March.

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