Compliance (2012)

I’ve been thinking about Craig Zobel’s Compliance for a long time since watching it. The 2012 film seemingly incensed the audience at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, presumably inspiring walkouts and even angry outbursts. Watching the movie, I couldn’t understand such a reaction unless the walkouts and shouters thought that the events were so implausible and so ridiculous as to be insulting.

In a perfect world, that would be the case. Compliance would be a shady and misogynistic work of fiction and we could point fingers at Zobel and his abhorrent actors and crew. We could shame them and discard them as miscreants for even thinking of such a thing. We could then sit back, justified in our anger and moral superiority, and feel good about ourselves for a change.

Unfortunately, the events of Compliance actually happened. The film opens with Sandra (Ann Dowd), a manager of the fictional ChickWich fast food restaurant chain. She’s dealing with an angry delivery driver initially and then takes to starting her shift, gearing up for a busy Friday at the restaurant. The busy day becomes dizzying when a police officer calls up and informs her that they’ve received a complaint of a theft.

Sandra is sent to retrieve the apparent thief, Becky (Dreama Walker), to bring her back to the diminutive office. From there, the police officer encourages Sandra to help him with the case by searching through Becky’s pockets and purse. This escalates in unbelievable fashion and Sandra eventually strip-searches Becky with the aid of an assistant manager (Ashlie Atkinson). Events get even more out of hand, if you can believe it, but this is all based on a true story.

The real events that inspired Compliance took place at a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Kentucky. According to the end credits of the flick, 70 similar events were reported across 30 states. The police officer on the phone is, of course, not a police officer but a prankster looking to humiliate his targets into committing sexual harassment (and worse) for his own amusement.

Interestingly, the real case went a lot further than Zobel does in his film. He still plays things pretty close to reality, even having various other employees at the store participate in the prank to fluctuating degrees. Some ask questions, sort of, but most don’t go far enough. It’s only when the maintenance man (Stephen Payne) arrives that things start to unravel for the pervert on the phone.

Zobel uses the real events to create a sort of thought experiment in his film. It’s easy for us to sit and watch “knowing” that we’d never do what Sandra did. There are too many red flags, after all, and there’s just no way we’d believe that it was a real cop. We’d know the right questions to ask; we’d catch the screw-ups the prankster makes on the phone and we’d know the inconsistencies.

More importantly, we know we’d never cross those moral lines. But several people did – and that’s the point. What causes these people to comply with perceived authority figures? What creates this scenario in the first place and how did so many people, from a Taco Bell manager strip-searching a 17-year-old customer in Arizona to Donna Summers in Kentucky, participate in it?

Zobel’s Compliance is enraging and, to a point, I can understand walking out on it. I can understand the idea of throwing my hands up in the air and wondering how the hell this is happening. The scenario is so ridiculous – and gets more ridiculous by the moment – that it’s preposterous to think that it ever actually worked. Yet here we are.

Compliance is well-done as a film. It features a tremendous performance from Dowd and some brilliant supporting performances as well. Walker, who most know from some of her television roles, is asked to go through a lot for the movie and she does so with dignity. She is never objectified from a cinematic sense and nothing about her frequent nudity is sexy or alluring.

In the end, Compliance is a tough film to watch. It, like The Invisible War, presents an uncomfortable truth. It doesn’t allow for breaks or breathers, choosing to zero in on the taciturnity of its reality. It tells the story, perplexingly or not, and lets the audience decide on the next move. Some have walked out, others have bellowed. And others, like me, have observed in speechless, cumbersome quiet.

Trailer: