Based on a true story, Craig Zobel’s Compliance (2012) is a film that will inspire you to think more carefully about orders that you receive from figures of authority. The film takes place in a fast food chicken restaurant, where manager Sandra (the amazing Ann Dowd) receives a call from “Officer Daniels”, claiming that one of her staff, Becky (Dreama Walker), recently stole money from a customer. The restaurant is busy, and the manager wants the situation resolved as quickly as possible. She follows direct orders from Officer Daniels, which become more disturbing as time goes on.
This film reminds me a lot of Stanley Milgram’s obedience to authority experiments in the 60s, where participants in the experiment were required to follow orders from someone who they knew to be their superior. It was shown that, more often than not, individuals will follow orders from someone whom they perceive to have authority over themselves; going against their own instincts, or ethics, and following the orders they are given. This is exactly what happens in this film: Sandra perceives the voice on the telephone to be a police officer, and she knows to obey what police officers tell you to do. It just so happens that this police officer asks her to perform acts that are out of the ordinary: for example, getting her to perform a strip search on Becky, and asking Sandra to leave Becky alone with an older male.
When watching this film, and seeing the events spiral out of control, it’s really easy to think, “What a stupid idiot! I’d never believe a random person on the phone like that”. However, I’d urge viewers to consider the situation before judging the manager: she’s flustered, she believes a crime has been committed, it’s the busiest time of the day, the restaurant is understaffed, they’ve run out of bacon… these are prime conditions for negligent, rushed behaviours to arise. It’s true that the manager suffers from a lack of logic in not requesting identity information from the supposed police officer on the phone. But it’s easy to see that manager Sandra is a victim of circumstance. The fact that the real life prank call scam occurred successfully over 70 times shows that this is a very real issue that has affected many different people, not just one particularly ‘stupid’ person.
Both Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker are amazing in this film. As flustered manager Sandra, Dowd is the perfect mix of angry, stressed and obedient. She so competently displays the mannerisms of someone who just wants the whole fiasco over and done with, and at the film’s conclusion, her realisation of what she has been a willing participant in is heartbreaking. Meanwhile, Walker is perfect as Becky. Her portrayal of the complex feelings involved with physical and sexual assault is mesmerising. Before Compliance, I’d only ever seen her on television shows, and was surprised at how great she was in this film.
The cinematography is quite gritty and beautiful. Filmed in both a documentary, hand-held style, and with a steady gaze, the clinical back room of the restaurant becomes a threatening space where horrible acts occur. As the situation escalates, the back room becomes a sort of prison, and watching the film becomes a claustrophobic experience. Between the hustle and bustle of the restaurant’s main area, and the secluded cruelty behind the scenes, the film’s visuals are exceptional.
This is such an uncomfortable film to watch, and you’ll probably find yourself yelling at the screen (like I did). It is frustrating, and overwhelmingly disgusting, that this is actually a true story. Compliance is one of those films that you only want to watch once due to the negative feelings that it might stir up. But once you’ve seen it, it will make a significant impact on you.
Watch the trailer here.