Would you do something that you feel is wrong if someone in authority told you to do it? How far would you go if that person said it was okay? Would you say no, or obey? Don’t most people accept, and even like being told what to do?
Compliance is a small film that asks these big questions. The answers, like the film itself, will make you uncomfortable.
The story is straightforward. It’s a busy Friday night at a suburban fast-food outlet. Sandra (Ann Dowd), the restaurant’s stressed 50-something manager, receives a phone call from a man who identifies himself as Police Officer Daniels (Pat Healy).
He says that his surveillance team witnessed Becky (Dreama Walker), a pretty blonde teenaged restaurant employee, stealing money from a customer’s purse. He tells Sandra that he needs her help in securing evidence from Becky until his men can arrive at the scene.
“Officer Daniels” (who the audience will learn is not really a cop) then proceeds to give Sandra detailed instructions. His requests—orders, really—escalate step by step, from questioning Becky to a humiliating strip search culminating in sexual assault. Becky, Sandra, and Sandra’s fiancé willingly comply.
Before you say that nothing like this would ever really happen, in April 2004 a prank caller identifying himself as a police officer played out this exact scenario with employees of a McDonald’s outside Louisville, Ky. And that wasn’t the only instance. Over a period of 10 years, 70 similar phone calls have occurred across the country, according to the film’s press notes.
Filmmaker Craig Zobel and the cast succeed in bringing gut-wrenching reality to what seems intellectually unbelievable.
How can normal, decent people become complicit in committing astonishingly outrageous acts? For Sandra, it’s a sense of duty to please those above her and command those below. For Becky, it’s desperate hope for a way out. It leads them both to do as they are told.
The film opens with close-ups of the fast-food workplace stations, the greasy reality where the players spend so many of their waking hours. When Sandra enlists in a police investigation—something big, something important—we feel the excitement of escape from a life of quiet desperation. Later, Sandra pulls her pleasant but somewhat befuddled fiancé in, to disastrous effect.
“Officer” Daniels is a master manipulator. Listen closely and you hear the lexicon of control—the appeals to authority, the scolding followed by reassurances, the “I need you to do this” commands masked as requests—all with the effect of keeping the victims confused and compliant.
The Milgram and Zimbardo social psychology experiments famously demonstrated how easy it is to get an average person to degrade, even torture, fellow human beings. Most of us fancy ourselves better and smarter than that. We question authority rather than obey it. We’ll never be in the docket at Nuremberg for “just following orders,” we tell ourselves.
But spend just a few minutes in quiet meditation and you’ll hear a critical voice inside speaking to your fears and desires. It expects you to accept, not question, the reality of its narrative—it’s the authority, after all—and to react accordingly. Officer Daniels is on duty.
Hollywood blockbusters scare us with special effects, aliens, and explosions. Compliance shows us the monsters within ourselves. That is truly frightening.
Director: Director: Craig Zobel
Cast: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy
Running Time: 90 minutes
C.W. Ellis is a freelance writer based in New York.
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