A willing suspension of disbelief can only go so far. The premise of a fast food manager locking up, strip searching and sexually humiliating a nineteen year old employee because a man on the phone, claiming to be a police officer, tells her to do so, goes way beyond such aforementioned suspension of disbelief. The fact that Compliance is based on true events (and, if one were to read and believe the transcripts, a surprisingly accurate portrayal of said events as well) makes the unbelievability of the film even that more disconcerting. Now whether any even moderately intelligent person would fall for such a prank (and I cannot reasonably believe any would) is made null and void once we realize that the strip searches and the sexual degradation (and it does go further down an even more unbelievable avenue about midway through the film, but we will leave that suspense the opportunity to unfold naturally) did indeed occur in real life.
The events though, which took place at a McDonald's restaurant back in 2004 (here set at the fictional ChickWich chain), and which were just the apex of a slew of over seventy such incidences over a ten year period, and which would culminate in another slew of events, this time of the lawsuit variety, are so vastly unbelievable, so incredibly unrealistic, so ridiculously unfathomable, that they only serve to make Craig Zobel's film about the events seem just as unbelievable, just as unrealistic and, at times, just as ridiculous. Which should be a shame really, because the casually intense manner in which the events unfold, and the way they are quite powerfully portrayed by a mostly unknown cast, are overshadowed by the utter ridiculousness of the events as they unfold and unfold and unfold some more into even more and more unbelievable scenarios. But then, I find myself still thinking about the film, still talking about the film, still reeling the film around inside my head (both the ridiculous and the more realistic aspects) well after watching it, so perhaps this post-intensity (whether it be anger at the film and/or train wreck fascination at these unbelievable events), in turn overshadows the already overshadowing aspects mentioned above. In other words, that aforementioned suspension of disbelief may not make you believe this unbelievably true story (some conspiracy theorists claim it was all an act to get a lot of money out of McDonald's, but that seems just as unbelievable) but the eerily calm intensity of the whole thing just might let you get beyond that and see the film for the strange provocative creature that it ends up being.
It is really the cadence of the narrative, shown through a naturalistic, dirty snow-like lens (both figuratively and literally), and the way this steely naturalism (played out in an almost cinéma vérité manner) is presented by Zobel and his cast (long time TV and film character actress Ann Dowd is quite superb in the role of the easily manipulated store manager), that makes an otherwise ridiculous story, work as well as it does here. Though the events supposedly go down in the film pretty much just as they do on the video surveillance that captured the said events at that McDonald's back in 2004, we are shown a much less frantic, much more compliant rendition in Zobel's divisive and controversial film. From all I have read, the poor innocent nineteen year old fast food employee whose life is turned upside down by the sick and twisted prank call and the unbelievably stupid reactions of her manager and fellow employees, here portrayed by ex-Gossip Girl regular Dreama Walker, as a naive and quite bewildered, but ultimately compliant victim, pleaded, begged, cried and lashed out at the violations that were befalling her. Zobel attempts at making the film, and the events within the film, all that more - shall we say creepy - and therefore making a ridiculous situation, perhaps not quite believable (I still cannot quite believe something like this could happen), but at least intense enough to make us rethink what may or may not be believable. What Zobel gives us is the most believable of unbelievable situations - and it works.