I have not yet decided whether or not “Compliance” will receive mention as one of my year’s best films, but I do know that it is one that has haunted me the longest. It’s certainly unforgettable. Many of you will scream “UNBELIEVABLE!!!” at the screen—meaning that you refuse to believe the events in “Compliance” could ever possibly happen. Search it after the film. These things most certainly did actually occur. And more than once apparently. In fact, the plot line is clearly modeled after an infamous case that happened in 2004. Just about every detail of that real-life incident pops up in the story line of “Compliance”. Then a lot of people will espouse that such a thing could never happen to them. That the main characters of the movie were a bunch of backwards rubes. Again, I beg to differ. It appears that the feeling of the filmmakers is that this type of spiraling out-of-control circumstance could sneak up on anyone. In fact, the movie makes the point that the least likely candidates to stop the insanity, were the ones that ultimately put an end to it. This is a horror film with no monsters, where no one is physically injured and not a soul dies. But it’s one of the most disturbing films you’ll see all year. Oh yes, you can consider that a recommendation. 

Middle-aged Sandra(a terrific Ann Dowd)is the manager at a fast food restaurant that receives a phone call at work from a man claiming to be a police investigator. “Officer Daniels”(commanding voice work from Pat Healy, who is rarely seen)informs Sandra that a young cashier at the chain has reportedly stolen money from the purse of a customer. After a brief discussion over the phone, it is decided that the accused is 19 year-old Becky(a brave Dreama Walker). The policeman claims to be searching Becky’s home, and that he is unable to immediately leave that investigation in order to interrogate and frisk Becky in person at the moment. So, during the conversation—Daniels asks Sandra for assistance. Sandra explains that it is one of the establishment’s busiest times—an early Friday evening—but that she will do her best to comply. Becky is soon escorted by Sandra to a back stock room\office space. First, Becky is simply questioned as to whether or not she is a thief. The interview is done in tandem between Sandra and the policemen talking to Becky over the phone. Becky denies stealing anything. Then Officer Daniels asks Sandra to search Becky’s pockets. When nothing is found, Daniels presses Sandra to conduct a strip search. Both women are highly reluctant at first, but are ultimately convinced to go along with things when threatened with matters being made even worse. For instance—the police could arrive and cart Becky off for the strip search at the local jail and then kept overnight. An assistant manager(Ashlie Atkinson)is brought in to witness the search and questioning, and soon Becky is naked except for a small apron given to her for occasional cover. Still, pleading that she is totally innocent, Becky is soon “guarded” by a series of employees, in shifts, until the police can get there. As the restaurant becomes increasingly busy, Sandra and her assistant are getting called to the front more and more. Sandra explains to the persuasive Officer Daniels that it’s getting difficult to leave even one worker with the mostly nude Becky while they await the arrival of authorities. Sandra pleads with Daniels to show up to “take over” soon. Then, Daniels convinces Sandra to call in her mild-mannered, soon to be fiance, Van(a very good Bill Camp) to supervise the scantily clad teenage blond girl. When Van is alone with Becky, “Officer” Daniels speaks to him over the phone, and increases the level of his “search” demands.

You will constantly be aghast and shocked by just how far things continue to go. If you care to watch the DVD extras, you will learn about the existence of the infamous “Milgram” experiment. This research was conducted in the 1960’s to test the level of obedience people would comply with when being given instructions by a real or perceived authority figure. It was apparently astounding concerning the extreme lengths certain folks would travel to obey. For some it seemed that they were being given license to be cruel. My immediate reaction during the film’s early stages was “how could anyone” agree to all of this. But director/screenwriter(Craig Zobel)goes to great lengths to envision how things like a busy work environment, an immature subject, or the drinking of a few too many beers could drastically alter the landscape. In fact, just like the vocal demands of “Officer Daniels” over the phone, the film itself enacts a skillful manipulation. Too manipulative? Too exploitative? You’ll be left to decide. It’s been reported that the audiences at Sundance 2012 were sharply divided, including walkouts and screaming matches during the post-film Q & A. And if that’s not a ringing endorsement for the morbidly curious, I don’t know what is.     Grade:  B+


2 comments on “Compliance

  1. The Milgram experiment has since been banned from psychological research because it was deemed too manipulative and too stressful for those involved, but I believe there is a whole lot of truth to be mined from that experiment. As we saw after 9/11 and many other situations, when a voice of “authority” tells you to do something most people are happy to comply. I will check this one out.

    • It is a fascinating film. I was tempted to give it an even higher grade—maybe after a second look I’ll reevaluate. There is a marvelous scene towards the finale involving a police detective in his car—I would love to discuss its significance with someone. And thanks for the info on the Milgram experiment! ML

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