What happens when a prank caller has no empathy or moral boundaries, and his victims are simple-minded, easy targets? That is what indie filmmaker Craig Zobel tries to answer with this distressing but constantly vibrant piece, entitled Compliance. Or rather, that is what was answered in an incident at a McDonald's restaurant in Mount Washington, Kentucky back in 2004 – an incident which is the basis for this film.
Sometimes filmmakers find inspiration from real events, and then make them more remarkable in order to satisfy producers and audiences. This is not the case with Compliance, because this story was already more than remarkable enough. For Zobel, it was rather a case of not dumbfounding his viewers into indifference with the reality of his story. Because, seen through the eyes of the film's antagonist, Officer Daniels, Compliance at times plays out like a filmmaker's sexual fantasy, taking the form of a downward spiral of degradation, naivety and ineptitude, which may feel both offensive and misanthropic – or "un-American", for that matter.
Fortunately, Zobel is not in this to exploit, he's here to make a gripping film about human behaviour in a sociological context. It's a riveting comment about people living in a society with an intrinsic fear of authorities. Their want to be good and do the right thing is not what is compromised here, but rather their ability to recognise the immorality of these situations on their own. Instead they lean on rules and regulations for guidance, and when these rules and regulations come in conflict with their own perception, the former takes precedence over the latter. This is what made this in hindsight unbelievable incident possible, and that's also what makes Compliance such a brilliant combination of social drama and human horror.