Compliance: A Troubling Watch That Will Stay With You

by Michelle McGlynn

This would never happen. No one would ever do that. This is ridiculous. Are we supposed to believe that anyone is stupid enough to go along with this? These are the type of thoughts that will run over and over in your mind for the ninety minutes you are watching Craig Zobel’s Compliance. But the film opens and ends with the chilling reminder that this did actually happen. On more than one occasion.

Sandra (Ann Dowd) manages the local ChickWich. She arrives to work only to discover that thousands of dollars worth of food has been ruined after someone forgot to close the freezer door the night before. She must deal with a disgruntled truck driver, a bacon shortage, informing corporate of the situation and the possibility of a mystery shopper. All of this on their busiest night. This is a nightmare for Sandra. But the nightmare that will unfold in the fast food restaurant that night hasn’t even begun. Sandra receives a call from a man identifying himself as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy). The man on the other end of the line informs her that a member of her staff, Becky (Dreama Walker), stole money from a customer’s purse earlier that evening. The police are unable to send someone at this time and would Sandra be able to detain her until they can send someone? “I’ll do everything you need” Sandra tells him. She does just that, following every directive given to her over the phone. This sees Becky subjected to humiliation and sexual degradation at the hands of Sandra, fellow employees and even Sandra’s fiancé.

When Compliance screened at Sundance it prompted walkouts and has generated controversy and debate among audiences ever since. The walkouts were not because of the film itself but the subject matter. It is difficult to think that someone would treat another person in such an abhorrent manner just because someone is, or at least claims to be, in a position of authority. The events that transpire remind us of the Stanford prison experiment and the experiments of psychologist Stanley Milgrim. This film clearly illustrates the conclusions these experiments reached. Compliance is a troubling watch without the comfort of telling ourselves that it’s just a film.

As we are informed at the end of the film, over the course of a decade there were over 70 cases similar to the one depicted here reported in the US. Zobel used the most extreme of the cases as his focus. This “prank call” took place at a McDonalds in Mount Washington, Kentucky. Zobel takes one or two small details from other cases but for the most part everything you see in Compliance is what happened to an eighteen year-old girl. The twisted event needs no embellishment from Zobel.

Zobel’s film is unyielding and does not allow the audience a chance to distance themselves from what is happening. While the camera stays with Becky as she is subjected to strip searches and other despicable acts, Zobel doesn’t linger. He occasionally cuts the film with footage of the greasy, unsavoury food being served which adds to that terrible feeling in the pit of your stomach.

The cast gives subdued and natural performances with standouts Ann Dowd and Pat Healy perfectly playing their respective characters. Dowd manages to show the complexities of her character, making her at times sympathetic despite her actions. She is the main focus of identification for the audience. How would we behave in her place? Is she partially a victim in this twisted game?  Healy meanwhile displays a disturbing element of glee in his turn as the sociopathic “Officer Daniels”.

Compliance is a troubling and difficult watch as we are forced to question our own moral codes and at what point we might give in to the pressures from authority to break them. We may well sit and judge those on screen as being lesser than us, but this “prank” worked seventy different times and psychological experiments have proven that there are a number of us who in the same situation would have complied. This is the reason why people have been compelled to walk out and it is the reason that this film will stay with you long after you leave the cinema.

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