Compliance is evidently a pretty rattling experience and, while writer-director Craig Zobel and his cast have been met with catcalls and hostility from audiences in Park City, the reaction of most critics so far seems to have been to go back to their hotel rooms and write raves. Qualified raves, but still.
Time Out New York's David Fear: "Having already started her day off on a bum note due to an employee fuck-up, a fast-food manager (Ann Dowd) is simmering at the lack of respect her crew shows her during a shift. A phone call from a police officer then informs her that a 19-year-old counter girl (Dreama Walker) has stolen money from a customer's purse; his team is going to investigate the matter, but until they get there, could the manager keep the alleged perp locked in the back office? It would be a big help to the cops. Also, she'll need to strip-search the young woman, and… We've already figured out that the smooth talker on the other end of the line isn't a cop, and once our suspicions are confirmed, it's simply a matter of how far this hoax will go. The answer: way too far. The fact that the film's nightmare of sexual abuse and sheeplike behavior is based on an actual 2004 incident at a Kentucky McDonald's only makes everything more nauseating."
The LA Weekly's Karina Longworth:
Compliance's genre thrills feel richer when you consider that the context for how obedience could trump basic morality is embedded into every moment of the film. It's not an accident that the prank caller preys on a fast food joint, the province of minimum wage workers supervised by dues-paying lifers. Not only are even those at the top of this food chain unlikely to be well-educated, but everyone from the top to the bottom likely needs their job too much to risk questioning authority.
If the workers are united by their paycheck dependence, Zobel creates major rifts between characters based on generation. It's the restaurant's oldest employee who finally calls foul, while Becky, the youngest, is incredibly passive about her victimization….
As exploitative as it may be of an audience's good will, Compliance is not an exploitation film, exactly; it's a more of a procedural, an anatomy of how systemic everyday exploitation is the perfect breeding ground for extraordinary exploitation.
For the AV Club's Noel Murray, "though Pat Healy gives a wonderfully oily performance as the prankster, the even tone of Compliance makes much of it hard to buy, even though just about every major moment is from the police record. That said, the cast here is so terrific that they turn a movie that takes place almost entirely in one dingy room into rich theater, and Zobel wields the same feel for everyday interactions and power relationships that he showed in Great World of Sound . And Compliance has a hell of an epilogue too, showing a little of the aftermath of the event and how the characters continue to submit to authority, certain that if they’re polite and cooperative, everything will turn out okay."
"Yes, this is a film that places the audience in a superior position to its characters, observing these poor ChickWich workers like rats in a particularly menacing maze," writes Anthony Kaufman. "And yes, this is a film that rides on the suspense of the sexual humiliation and domination of an attractive blonde teenage girl. And for these reasons alone you could throw Compliance on the misanthropic trash heap that so many critics and viewers will inevitably do. But a few caveats to these criticisms: Does the film implicate the viewer — a la the work of Michael Haneke, an obvious reference point for this cinema of cruelty — or does the audience get a free pass, somehow getting some kind of sick vicarious pleasure in the proceedings? I'm not sure, but the sheer discomfort in watching the film might suggest the former."
More from Todd Gilchrist (Playlist), Tim Grierson (Screen), Tom Hall (Filmmaker), Harlan Jacobson (Boston Phoenix), Justin Lowe (Hollywood Reporter), Nathan Rabin (AV Club, B+) and Liza Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly).
Interviews with Zobel: Bilge Ebiri (Vulture), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE), Todd Gilchrist (Playlist), Scott Macaulay (Filmmaker), Mark Olsen (Los Angeles Times) and Claiborne Smith (Sundance).