Compliance (2012): “I’m just trying to do my job.”

Compliance_Movie_PosterBased on a true story, Craig Zobel’s Compliance (2012) is a film that will inspire you to think more carefully about orders that you receive from figures of authority. The film takes place in a fast food chicken restaurant, where manager Sandra (the amazing Ann Dowd) receives a call from “Officer Daniels”, claiming that one of her staff, Becky (Dreama Walker), recently stole money from a customer. The restaurant is busy, and the manager wants the situation resolved as quickly as possible. She follows direct orders from Officer Daniels, which become more disturbing as time goes on.

This film reminds me a lot of Stanley Milgram’s obedience to authority experiments in the 60s, where participants in the experiment were required to follow orders from someone who they knew to be their superior. It was shown that, more often than not, individuals will follow orders from someone whom they perceive to have authority over themselves; going against their own instincts, or ethics, and following the orders they are given. This is exactly what happens in this film: Sandra perceives the voice on the telephone to be a police officer, and she knows to obey what police officers tell you to do. It just so happens that this police officer asks her to perform acts that are out of the ordinary: for example, getting her to perform a strip search on Becky, and asking Sandra to leave Becky alone with an older male.

When watching this film, and seeing the events spiral out of control, it’s really easy to think, “What a stupid idiot! I’d never believe a random person on the phone like that”. However, I’d urge viewers to consider the situation before judging the manager: she’s flustered, she believes a crime has been committed, it’s the busiest time of the day, the restaurant is understaffed, they’ve run out of bacon… these are prime conditions for negligent, rushed behaviours to arise. It’s true that the manager suffers from a lack of logic in not requesting identity information from the supposed police officer on the phone. But it’s easy to see that manager Sandra is a victim of circumstance. The fact that the real life prank call scam occurred successfully over 70 times shows that this is a very real issue that has affected many different people, not just one particularly ‘stupid’ person.

Both Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker are amazing in this film. As flustered manager Sandra, Dowd is the perfect mix of angry, stressed and obedient. She so competently displays the mannerisms of someone who just wants the whole fiasco over and done with, and at the film’s conclusion, her realisation of what she has been a willing participant in is heartbreaking. Meanwhile, Walker is perfect as Becky. Her portrayal of the complex feelings involved with physical and sexual assault is mesmerising. Before Compliance, I’d only ever seen her on television shows, and was surprised at how great she was in this film.

The cinematography is quite gritty and beautiful. Filmed in both a documentary, hand-held style, and with a steady gaze, the clinical back room of the restaurant becomes a threatening space where horrible acts occur. As the situation escalates, the back room becomes a sort of prison, and watching the film becomes a claustrophobic experience. Between the hustle and bustle of the restaurant’s main area, and the secluded cruelty behind the scenes, the film’s visuals are exceptional.

This is such an uncomfortable film to watch, and you’ll probably find yourself yelling at the screen (like I did). It is frustrating, and overwhelmingly disgusting, that this is actually a true story. Compliance is one of those films that you only want to watch once due to the negative feelings that it might stir up. But once you’ve seen it, it will make a significant impact on you.

Watch the trailer here.


  1. I intended to see this when it first came out, but never got around to it. Then I forgot about it.

    Thanks for the reminder. I’ll catch it at some point, though it sounds more than a little disturbing, both in general and from your review.

    1. You’re welcome! It’s definitely more than a little disturbing! However it does deal with the more disturbing moments in a very mature and respectful way, which I forgot to mention in my review. It’s one of those ones where you don’t want to say you love the film, because of how horrible it makes you feel. But it is a really great film.

  2. Great review. Such an uncomfortable viewing experience. Like you, I was reminded of Milgram and also the Stanford Prison experiment. A lot of people bagged this film, but I don’t think it got the respect that it deserved.

    1. Thanks! Yeah, I didn’t really understand why people bagged this one. I thought it was really good, but definitely very uncomfortable to watch! I wonder if people just became so frustrated with the manager’s actions that it impinged on their appreciation of the film as a whole.

      1. I think that was a large part of it. So many reviews I read complained bitterly that it was totally unbelievable. But it was based on a true story and apparently pretty accurate which kind of invalidates that criticism. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction as they say.

  3. Nice review Anna. Pretty messed-up movie, that’s only made worse by the fact that it’s all real. Well, most of it at least.

    1. Thank you, I agree! Every now and then when watching I would forget that it’s based on a true story. It almost seems like too much of a crazy thing to happen.

  4. Excellent review Anna,

    I saw this and had to keep reminding myself (like you) that this really (sorta) happened. It is such a disturbing movie, but it leaves such an impact that you know the filmmakers got what they wanted to out of it because you stay in a state of shock (and denial) for days afterwards over the fact that 70-someodd people “fell” for this kind of thing.

    I was also amazed that they did the abuse scenes very maturely and left more to the imagination than show us what was happening.


    1. Thanks! πŸ™‚ I totally agree, it’s unbelievable! They showed a lot of restraint in the abuse scenes, which was an excellent way to go about it. It could have easily turned to exploitation territory, but the film avoided that very deftly.

  5. Great review of a sadly underrated film. As you say, it makes for very uncomfortable viewing but is so compelling it really needs to be seen to be believed.

    1. Thanks! πŸ™‚ I agree, this film is really underrated. But it’s one of those films I’d definitely recommend as a good example of films that make you feel uncomfortable!

  6. […] Z for Zachariah Based on the book by Robert C. O’Brien, Z for Zachariah is a post-apocalyptic story about a small-town girl named Ann Burden, played by Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), who thinks she’s the lone survivor after a nuclear war. Her world is turned upside down when she meets two strangers, played by Chris Pine (Into The Woods) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave). In the book, Ann only meets one stranger, so Pine’s character is a mysterious new addition to the movie. Originally, Amanda Seyfried was supposed to play the lead, but dropped out. Z for Zachariah is directed by Craig Zobel (Compliance). […]

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