The manager of a fast-food restaurant gets a phone call from a police officer, telling her that one of her employees is a criminal and needs to be detained. If that sounds fishy, just wait. It gets absolutely grotesque, because it turns out that people will do absolutely anything to one another so long as an authority figure — even a disembodied voice over the phone — tells them it’s okay.
That’s not an idea that’s exclusive to Craig Zobel’s Compliance. The film is inspired by a true story, in which a prank call led to a despicable civil rights violation. Most amazingly, the film manages to take this incredible situation and makes the audience understand exactly how it happened, what kind of people let themselves be swayed by a stern voice, and how easy it is to undermine all human decencies just by saying out loud that it’s okay to ignore them. Dreama Walker is wholly believable and sympathetic as the young woman abused by her employer, and Ann Dowd gives an all-time great performance as the woman who thinks she’s doing the right thing, no matter how awful it is.