In movies, nowadays the words "inspired by true events" has become a over-rated phrase. Most of the time we end up seeing a highly fictionalized account of a true incident. That's not the case with Craig Zobel's queasy thriller "Compliance." The movie is based on series of real-life prank calls in reported at fast-food chain restaurant nationwide, in USA. The case was called "strip-search prank-call scam." I didn't know about the facts or details about this case, but watching this movie you find yourself getting angry with Zobel, assuming that he was amping up the severity of real events for dramatic effect. Make no mistake, the real-life incident is as harrowing as the shown in the screen.
The movie opens at a fast-food joint on a busy Friday night. Sandra (Ann Dowd) is the manager and the day is already off to a horrible start. One of the staff has forgot to close the freezer the night before, and they have failed to order enough bacon for the coming onslaught of customers. Becky (Dreama Walker) is a attractive young blonde working the register. The exhausted Sandra, later, takes a call from a police officer named "Daniels" (Pat Healy). He asks Sandra, does she have an attractive blond working for her? Yes says Sandra, its Becky. Daniels says there's been a problem, that he is 100% sure that Becky has stolen money from a customer's purse.
Daniels says he is tied up at the moment, but the money has to be found soon and he also warns that this is not just a simple case of theft. On the officer's instructions, Sandra calls Becky to in her office and reluctantly asks her to empty the pockets. Becky is panic-stricken but goes along with this, hoping to avoid being arrested by the police. With a mixture of flattery and firm authority, Daniels gets Sandra to question Becky, occasionally getting her on the phone and badgering her directly. Now, he says to Sandra that she must strip-search Becky. She hesitates at first, but he explains that if she doesn't, he'll have to bring Becky in and she'll spend the night in jail. That's only the start of the series of degrading incidents and what's jarring enough is that not only Sandra but multiple employees of the store went along with this hoax.
The caller 'Officer Daniels' is a gleeful sociopath. He sits before his computer, eating sandwiches and is manipulating Sandra. He probes with innocent questions and authoritative reassurances to find and exploit weaknesses that will lead to compliance. He just doesn't control the humans at the other end of the line, but also passes along that authority, to give them their own power to wield as well.
In 1961, the Milgram experiment showed that given a lawful authority figure issuing orders and taking responsibility, people will do as they're told, even if that means causing another person severe pain; and in the 1971 Stanford prison experiment normal people were given the roles of prisoner and guard. In the end, they played out the expectations of those assignments, often to cruel ends. These experiments and Zobel's film suggests that people will do almost anything, even harm other people, to please authority figures. When a interviewer asks Sandra, why she did those gruesome things to Becky, she answers "Because I was told to", just like the common response of "I was just following orders" given by officers when asked about gassing Jews during World War II.
You might think that this is just one incident. One true event doesn't show the whole attributes of humans. Yeah, that's correct. But, "Compliance" just shows one of the 70 reported cases. We might think that in that position, recognizing a sexual predator is a simple thing, but the fact that more than 70 similar cases were reported in 30 states of USA (over a period of 10 years), provides an alarming evidence to the contrary.
Director Craig Zobel has put together a adept, sympathetic but unsparing re-enactment of a small-scale atrocity. If not for Zobel's basic sense of discretion, the movie's most shocking and credulity-straining turn would arguably have been even more nauseating. Zobel's cast plays their characters with natural, understated performances. Walker does the incredibly difficult role. Covered at times only by a small apron, she remains as the ultimate portrayal of vulnerability. Ann Dowd does the Oscar-worthy, pitch-perfect role of Sandra, a manager whose minor insecurities becomes major failings. The final scene, in which Dowd eventually recognizes what she has done, is subtly devastating. Sandra's role in the scam might be being stupid and gullible, but her willingness to deny responsibility allows her to play a part.
Through "Compliance", Zobel comes up with a timely message: if we aren’t prepared to question authority, we might risk losing our dignity as human beings. This tale will definitely make you angry and it's not an easy movie to watch. You might call it a exploitation or expose, anyhow it will stay with you long after the visuals have faded from the screen.
Compliance - IMDb
Rated R for language and sexual content/nudity