Compliance | Movie review
A controversial Sundance hit lets viewers off the hook.
More a great movie to talk about than a great movie, Compliance has been championed since its Sundance premiere as everything from a commentary on Abu Ghraib to a metaphor for cinema itself and how narratives lull audiences into passive acceptance of what they see. These readings may freight it with baggage it can’t quite carry. The nominal subject is the most infamous of a series of real-life incidents: A man claiming to be a cop called a fast-food restaurant and told the manager an employee had committed a theft and should be detained. Character actress Ann Dowd gives a courageously vacant performance as the harried, corporate-minded drone; over the course of a very long day, she’ll subject her 19-year-old subordinate (Dreama Walker) to treatment that might shock even participants in Stanley Milgram’s landmark “obedience” experiment.
One hopes most people know this is not how police operate, and you may leave Compliance less pessimistic about the limits of human psychology than the failures of American civics education. The movie miscalculates by cutting away to the caller at home, even if that does mean seeing him played by an unflappably weaselly Pat Healy. While allowing us a privileged perspective doesn’t make the film any less gripping, it does give viewers an escape hatch from the confusion on the other end. Compliance inevitably raises the question of how moviegoers themselves would behave. The treatment suggests we’d be more rational—but by keeping us at a remove, the film perhaps too easily lets audience members off the hook.