Entries Comments

Compliance Is Endlessly Watchable, While Straining Credibility, And Oh Yeah: It’s True

Written and directed by Craig Zobel
Magnolia Pictures, 2012

I think most of us would agree that, should anyone call you claiming to be the police, and that they need you to do things that the police normally do, we’d tell that person on the other end of the line to fuck off.  What’s funny about the story laid out in Compliance is that it doesn’t even seem as credible as the events in Premium Rush, where Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character actively disobeys a real cop asking for something out of his bag.  But in that instance, Premium Rush is right: police only have a certain amount of rights, and they definitely don’t have the ability to call and tell somebody to do something that would require a warrant and they would have to do themselves.  Yet, apparently, what happens in Compliance has happened about 70 times in real life.

In this movie, Becky (Dreama Walker) is at a normal day at a fast food chicken restaurant.  Well, somewhat abnormal: someone, probably Becky’s friend Kevin (Philip Ettinger) left the fridge open overnight, and the restaurant will be without a healthy supply of pickles and other items for the day.  Manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) wants to impress a potential secret shopper today, and she’s really excited that her boyfriend Van (Bill Camp) is going to propose to her soon.  We see interactions early on that (likely) contribute to what unfolds: Becky is an extremely attractive girl with a lot of boyfriends, and she very casually, in a way that seems bragging, talks about it to first assistant Marti (Ashlie Atkinson), and Sandra, despite her managerial status, tries to make it seem like she can “get it on” just like perky Betty does.

A phone call comes in to Sandra from a man claiming to be an “Officer Daniels” (Pat Healy).  He claims that a woman has come to him and is accusing Becky of stealing money out of her purse while at the restaurant.  When the initial common sense barrier has broken and Sandra says she’s seen Becky here all day and that she wouldn’t have time to do something like that, Daniels claims it’s a part of a “larger investigation” involving Becky’s brother and that the police are searching their home for evidence.

So Sandra pulls Becky off the register and the phone is passed back and forth between the two with Daniels, (who is actually just a regular dude preparing sandwiches and kicking it in an empty house), who claims that they need to search her purse and belongings to make sure the money is recovered.  The initial search proves fruitless, so Daniels ups the ante: she needs to be strip-searched.

In an intense scene in which Sandra gets her first assistant Marti as a witness, they insist on Becky removing her clothes.  When she stops at bra and panties, Daniels insists that money can be hidden anywhere and those need to go too.  Sandra doesn’t look like she wants this to happen, because, you know, decency and common good and all that.  But for some reason, this anguish doesn’t translate into thinking, “Something just isn’t right here.  We can’t do this.  This is wrong.”  Becky strips down completely naked, but Daniels says there’s got to be more to this story.  So the demands start getting more unusual.

At this point, Daniels wants Sandra to take Becky’s clothes out of the room and to get a “male guard” to make sure she doesn’t leave.  At this point, the story takes its ugliest turns.

The “Milgram Experiment” in which subjects would shock actors pretending to be agonizing participants and crank up the voltage just because doctors told them to do so is frightening.  But more frightening, perhaps, is the possibility that there might be personal reasons for allowing it to happen.  As an older woman who might be jealous of Becky’s conquests and looks, Sandra has a personal stake in humiliating Becky, even though every fiber of her being says its wrong.  And when men get involved, the motivation is clear.  This is an idea I’m not sure is fully explored as much as it could be, even though I feel it’s implied.  But Craig Zobel has a tough decision on that: do I make it where the viewer decides for him/herself, or do I make it exploitative?  That line is blurred a bit in the nudity we see: the camera has no problem showing us Becky’s breasts, but when she needs to pull down her underwear, the camera turns away, ashamed.  I’m interested in the decision-making behind that choice: he could have just as easily not shown us any nudity at all.

The idea of personal gain (or gain through the pain of someone else) is where I feel the movie is at its scariest, because people will do things despite their common sense and moral standards, but they’ll ride it for personal gain while claiming “My hands were tied!  I had to do what the police officer said!”  Of course, the Milgram experiments stemmed from the question of whether there were moral people in Nazi Germany when war criminals would just follow orders.

And that’s why I think the events happen, or at least the last push off the cliff.  Because it truly is unbelievable.  And for a minute there, I thought perhaps writer/director Craig Zobel was going the Coen Brothers’ route with Fargo by claiming an absolutely true story, because people would not be able to believe this could happen.  I have to say, I’m still a little skeptical, even with a Wikipedia page describing all the different times it’s happened.

But this is as watchable as a good, solid horror film, which is what it is ultimately.  Human nature is very scary indeed.

Write a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.