[This review was originally posted as part of our 2012 Sundance Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the wider theatrical release of the film.]
During my interview with Compliance writer/director Craig Zobel, he mentioned that the movie was made as a deliberate challenge to himself. Given his debut film, Great World of Sound, he’s already succeeded in inverting expectations. While the themes in Compliance are similar to those in Great World of Sound, they are tonal opposites. Great World of Sound is a funny and quietly poignant examination of manipulation, whereas Compliance is a disturbing depiction of how far people can be pushed by their obedience to perceived authority.
It’s a movie that made some audience members at Sundance angry, and rightly so. Compliance is an upsetting, painful movie about human weakness. Not only are the events factual, but the layered characters feel true — and the truth hurts.
Director: Craig Zobel
Release Date: August 17, 2012 (limited)
While based on a true story, one of the main hurdles for Compliance is whether or not the audience will believe the events on screen. Yes, it sticks surprisingly close to news reports and court transcripts, but the facts seem unbelievable, like the stuff of urban legend: a man pretending to be a police officer calls a fast food restaurant claiming that an employee stole a purse. The employee is then humiliated and dehumanized by her manager and others simply because the voice on the phone tells them to. The situation becomes increasingly absurd, and yet everyone seems helpless to do anything but obey. It’s like watching blindfolded people rush full tilt toward the edge of a cliff simply because they’re told to keep running.
As I mentioned earlier, the layers of emotion for each character are the reason this is compelling (and difficult) to watch. For Dreama Walker, who plays Becky, the accused employee, it’s a matter of seeing those layers peel like the shots of chipped paint at the beginning of the film. Early on she’s forced into a inexplicable strip search, the first of many unnerving scenes. Because of the circumstances and the general discomfort of the whole film, everything is gratuitously unsexy. She steadily erodes as a person. The psychological torture robs her of agency, and it even seems to take away her will to live. At her lowest, there’s only helplessness fueled by confusion and fear.
What’s surprising is that Ann Dowd makes Sandra, the restaurant manager, believable and perhaps even a bit sympathetic. She reminds me of some managers I’ve known from retail jobs; the ones who cared about approval from the district manager, who followed the corporate handbook to the letter, and who took odd pleasure from their limited position of authority. There’s a genuine sadness to that which Dowd conveys. She actually emotes at multiple levels: there’s also a sense that Sandra envies the younger and better-liked Becky, and a sense of being overwhelmed by the rush in the restaurant, and a sense of disappointment that this is her lot in middle-aged life.
On the other end of the phone is “Officer Daniels” played by Pat Healy. Healy was the lead in Great World of Sound. In that he was a timid yet likable rube who takes a job as a music producer. His character, though initially gullible, always had a conscience. Any glimmer of that is gone in Compliance. Officer Daniels is a trickster sociopath who ratchets up the situation minute by minute. He delights as he gets more depraved, sometimes laughing silently like he can’t believe people are doing what he says. He’s able to victimize everyone in that fast food restaurant — Becky the most, of course, but also anyone else who obeys him or refuses to stop him.
But why would anyone let things get so out of hand? How could people let this happen? Those are the questions that still make a true story seem unbelievable. I think that’s also the source of some of the outrage during the Sundance premiere of Compliance. It’s the same sort of outrage we experience when we hear about horrible crimes on the news. We ask, “What’s become of the human race?”
Compliance has also been accused of misogyny, much like last year’s controversial Sundance film The Woman. (Oddly, The Woman has been paradoxically labelled both misogynistic and feminist.) I think that while characters do misogynistic things, Compliance is not a misogynistic film on the whole given that its sympathy is always with Becky. Still, the misogynistic acts can elicit the same sort of question: “What’s become of the human race?”
This is the outrage felt when hearing about the Kitty Genovese case. The same goes for the Stanley Milgram experiment or the Stanford Prison experiment. Compliance gave me the same sense of unease. I felt repulsed, but I kept watching; I felt horrified, and yet I sat there helpless and uncomfortable with the knowledge that this was all true. I shook my head in disbelief and left the film shell shocked. As more time passes from the initial screening, I’m affected less by that visceral experience and more by what it’s made me think. It’s made me think about my own human frailty and how there were times that I merely obeyed for no good reason.
Where Compliance falters is at the end. After being exhausted yet engrossed by the film, it winds down quickly and goes a bit Dragnet. It’s an instinct I can sort of understand, but I wanted to see the aftermath of the phone call in more detail. There’s a lot of emotion to unpack. I think of the guilt, the second-guessing, the shame and cowardice of it all and how well these actors could have conveyed that. The squirming sense of outrage I felt was deflated and replaced by a sense of frustration. Yet even then, Compliance ends on a solid final scene — if only it were led into better.
There’s this idea of the banality of evil. Basically, normal people can do horrendous things if the behavior is normalized and/or deemed socially acceptable. (And where better to explore the banality of evil than the banality of retail and/or the food service industry?) Whenever I’m confronted by a book or a movie with any sort of exploration of the banality of evil, I try to infer its answer to the outraged question “How can people do this to other people?”
The answer, frighteningly curt, is usually, “Because we can and we do.” Maybe that’s the most chilling thing about Compliance.