When the words "Inspired by true events" appear at the start of Compliance, they are written in a font size that takes up the whole screen. You can understand writer-director Craig Zobel's determination to make sure everyone in the audience has got the message, because without the anchor of real events holding it in place, so much of the film seems too incredible to be true. The entire narrative thrust of the picture is built upon characters making inexplicably stupid decisions and consistently proving themselves to be remarkably gullible and open to suggestion, and if Compliance were a fictional film I'd be undoubtedly chastising the screenwriter for such flaws. That "true story" disclaimer is essentially Zobel's "Get Out of Jail Free" card.
The thing is, there's a difference between believing what you seen because you know the story is true and believing what you see because of the convincing way it is presented, and I'm not sure that Zobel pulls off the second part of that equation. The plot concerns Becky (Dreama Walker) a perky and likable young woman working behind the counter at a nondescript fast-food restaurant in Ohio. She is taken to an office at the back of the shop by her manager Sandra (Ann Dowd), who tells says that she has a police officer on the phone, and that Becky has been accused of theft by a customer. Shocked and confused, Becky is willing to turn out her pockets and empty her purse to help clear her name, but the cop on the line remains unconvinced by her pleas of innocence, and he orders Sandra to strip-search her.
It's that this point that you have to remind yourself that an incident like this really did take place, because as you watch the drama unfold onscreen it seems impossible to swallow. Sandra, blossoming under the sense of authority bestowed on her by "Officer Daniels", asks Becky to strip while another female employee enters the room to act as witness. It's a very difficult scene to watch, with the discomfort of all three women being palpable as Becky removes her clothes and Sandra checks them, before the naked and scared girl is handed an apron to partially cover herself. Things escalate dramatically from here, with various male characters being introduced to watch over Becky and being asked to commit increasingly invasive and humiliating acts. At no point does anyone question or challenge the disembodied voice on the end of the phone.
There are potentially some fascinating insights to be gleaned from the way people willingly submit to authority figures in situations like this (the Stanford Prison Experiment comes to mind), but Compliance is not the film to do it. The picture is staged in a manner that simply shows and tells us what took place, with Zobel focusing his attentions on maintaining tension and putting us audience members in an unpleasantly voyeuristic position. He does this effectively, but I never felt the gut-wrenching emotional pull that he was clearly going for, even though all of the actors perform commendably well in their thinly sketched and ultimately passive roles. I think one of Zobel's key errors early on is to reveal the caller (Pat Healy), therefore removing any lingering sense of mystery around the officer's identity and simply turning the film into a repetitive series of scenes in which people are prompted to do things to Becky while she sits there and takes it.
It becomes a bit of a drag. Instead of wondering what we would do in such a situation – the goal of most button-pushing dramas like this – we just sit there marvelling at the witlessness of these people. Compliance is a solid piece of filmmaking that exerts a queasy fascination simply because of the nature of the story it tells, but it is a failure of storytelling; it is not simply enough to rehash the facts, you need to give us a reason to invest our time in this picture. If Compliance doesn't hit you on an emotional level then there's nothing else to take away from the film, and the final twenty minutes is particularly deflating, as whatever dramatic tension it may have possessed dissipates in a weak, unfocused finale that offers no conclusions on the incident. "When they told you that you had to take your clothes off, is there a reason you didn't just say no?" a real police officer asks towards the end as he interviews Becky. "I don't know" she replies, "I just knew it was going to happen." That's the only occasion in Compliance when somebody asks why, and it's not really enough.