The day at a fast food eatery began like any other. Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager of the branch, has to shepherd her small group of employees through a hectic Friday evening. Then she gets a phone call from an “Officer Daniels” (Pat Healy). He tells her one of her workers, Becky (Dreama Walker), has stolen money from a customer. Sandra takes Becky into a storeroom and confronts her. Becky is aghast and professes her innocence. This is where things start to get out of control in writer/director Craig Zobel’s potent indie pressure-cooker. “Officer Daniels” insists that Becky be searched, then strip searched, and then worse, and Sandra and the employees begrudgingly go along. After all, it’s an officer of the law telling them what to do. Except that “Officer Daniels” is no police officer. This whole incident is an awful prank, and the people involved will never be the same.
This really is an indie horror movie, flipping the oft-repeated cry, “Don’t go in there,” with, “Why are you still doing this?” You may have to watch portions of this movie between your fingers. I was squirming and crying out at numerous points. The tension and dread just continue to mount, and you watch the characters slowly degrade, as they’re asked to do more insidious acts of humiliation in the name of compliance, and to watch them carry on the path of shame. It’s a step-by-step process of human degradation, so that the more disturbing moments of sexual obedience don’t feel entirely implausible given the journey through hell the characters have endured. It is impossible to watch this movie silent and detached. This is a provocative film that will garner many reactions but it’s also something of an endurance test. How long can you watch? How far can you watch these characters descend? The movie hooks you early and then you almost feel complicit, but you’re completely taken over by morbid curiosity.
The movie is a powerful modern-day example of the Milgram experiment, the famous psychological exercise where a figure in authority, who assumes all responsibility, gradually gets average people to commit increasingly harmful acts to others. As long as people believe they are following orders, they can be convinced to do almost anything by someone in control. It’s easy to sit back and judge these characters, scoffing at how naïve they seem to be. It’s always easy for us to say what we would do in hypothetical situations, that is, until they happen. Compliance is an intriguing analysis of the shifting facets of power, authority, and manipulation. “Officer Daniels” enlists a host of tricks and verbal intimidation to persuade his victims to do things outside their better judgment (the caller’s true profession is a brilliant backstory). After a while, Sandra looks to be developing some slight Stockholm syndrome as she empathizes more with the plight of the phony officer on the phone than her employee. He provides just enough sympathy and validation she’s looking for to win her over. He also plays people against one another; he implores Becky to spare Sandra any extended grief, which often cows her into consenting. “Officer Daniels” isn’t the only one manipulating others; Sandra pressures employees to become involved in the situation, using her position of power to squeeze others into getting what she wants. There are numerous victims and culprits here.
Zobel could have easily given over to the exploitation elements of his story and made a very tawdry, voyeuristic exercise in sexual dominance. We watch as Becky bares all of herself and then goes even further, as “Officer Daniels” instructs male attendants to physically inspect her body cavities. It is a credit to Zobel’s sensitive direction that Compliance does not come across like a glorified S&M masturbation fantasy. He treats the incident very seriously, providing clear distaste without going overboard into preachy condemnation or superiority. It’s amazing that Zobel’s script finds so much empathy for his participants. You may be surprised at how relatable and “normal” these people seem. You may even recognize some of them. They’re all trying to do the right thing at heart, but that distinction gets extremely blurry as the night carries on. The point of Zobel’s script is that these people could be us. The added empathy makes the downward spiral all the more stomach-churning, as we want these characters to take a stand, to wise up and question the voice of authority.
Dowd (Marley & Me) is downright heartbreaking and deeply frustrating in the movie. We get a clear sense of the pressure she’s under in her position, but she’s really the focal point of the movie. Walker (TV’s Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23) is the martyr of the piece, and her slow resignation to the humiliation is deeply affecting, but this is Dowd’s movie. The longtime character actress takes the character of the dowdy Sandra, striving for respect, and transforms her into a figure worthy of Greek tragedy. She can be vindictive and, well, bossy, but she’s also a figure struggling for respect and validation and what she feels is morally just. We watch as her confidence starts getting chipped away, the flickers of doubt that she must tamp down because now she’s gone too far to reverse course. I don’t imagine that a movie as small as Compliance will be remembered around Oscar time, but I’ll certainly recall Dowd’s sad and transfixing performance.
I’d like to share a spooky bit of personal connection to the film. No I’ve never experienced anything this heinous before, but there was an offhand music cue that caught my interest. When we cut to the dining area early on, there’s an Admiral Twin song playing. Who is Admiral Twin? Why they’re a brilliant pop-rock band from Tulsa, Oklahoma that I’ve been singing the praises of since 2000. I’ve won over friends with my discipleship, but the band is still relatively unknown, playing few performances outside of their native Tulsa. Given the phonetic approximations of my name with the film’s writer/director, and the inclusion of an obscure indie band that few know (but should), it seems likely that Zobel may indeed be some far off relative of mine or, more likely, myself. I must have crafted an entire film without ever knowing about it. This seems like the most probable scenario.
I don’t want it sound like Compliance is some grueling exercise in group sadism. In lesser hands, it might have devolved to that. It’s a fascinating and provocative game that challenges and incenses an audience. The movie is a sickening but compulsively watchable dramatic experiment that will leave you talking for hours once it concludes. It’s an uncomfortable sit, yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. The events in the film seem unbelievable and yet it’s based on a true story. This stuff happened, people. Not only that, it happened multiple occasions in multiple vicinities. What does that say about human nature? Will we only be as good as society lets us be? If we are absolved of responsibility, how far removed from our own sense of ethics will we go? Are we all susceptible to this moral failing under the right circumstances? I think that’s the truly terrifying and lasting lesson of Compliance. These people could be us, both victim and unwitting antagonist. Destined to stir debate and become a college ethics course favorite, Compliance is a gripping movie that will make you cringe but also give way to some scary introspection. How far would you go?
Nate’s Grade: A-