Of all the films you’ll see this year, “Compliance” has, for sure, the most unbelievable plot of them all. The little tagline at the beginning saying “inspired by true events” hasn’t stopped people from taking outrage at director Craig Zobel’s supposed exaggerations, with “Nobody could possibly be that stupid!” being a common refrain.
And yet, a little Net trawling of archived news stories (try a search for McDonald’s Kentucky 2004) reveals that the director of “Compliance” has made up next to nothing: This tale of a prank call taken to insane extremes actually happened.
Ann Dowd plays Sandra, a “ChickWich” fast food franchise manager who is having a stressful day after an employee left the freezer door open the previous night, causing thousands of dollars of losses and a bacon shortage. Thus, she’s not in a good mood when a call comes from the police telling her that one of her employees, bright-faced 19-year-old Becky (Dreama Walker), has stolen a customer’s purse. The police are going to be late getting there, though, so could Sandra maybe take Becky into the back room and search her pockets and belongings for evidence?
Sandra complies, and when nothing turns up, Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) asks her to strip-search the suspect. It’s here where things start getting weird, and it’s no spoiler to tell you the “officer” on the other end of the phone is some sort of perv getting his kicks out of this sadistic prank call. That’s not the surprise; the surprise is how far people are willing to go when it’s an authority-figure telling them to do something.
The situation soon escalates into some really uncomfortable territory, with Sandra calling in her drunk boyfriend Van (Bill Camp) to watch naked Becky in the office until the cops arrive. After several hours, though, the cops still aren’t there, the call continues, and Van walks out mumbling “I did something bad.” You will be waiting for someone, anyone at the ChickWich to stand up and say “Hey, wait a minute, this is messed-up,” but the film doesn’t provide that relief until it’s too late for Becky.
The situation goes so over-the-top that you’re not sure whether to laugh or cringe; the people following the anonymous cop’s orders are so ridiculously gullible, and the caller’s lucky gambits that keep the prank going every time someone gets suspicious, are the stuff of comedy. (And the biggest laugh comes when we learn what the caller does for a living.) Yet Becky’s degradation is real, and there are some intensely uncomfortable moments.
It’s easy to feel morally superior to the film’s characters, but director Zobel wants us to look in the mirror. When do we question authority? The dilemma is an old one. Psychologist Stanley Milgram — who did some controversial experiments on this topic that saw people willingly giving electric shocks to others when ordered to do so — reached some bleak conclusions. In his 1973 essay “The Perils Of Obedience,” he writes: “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs … can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.” See “Compliance” and you will tend to agree.