When a movie is modest in scale and trifling in ideas, it’s tempting to skip it, saving time and energy for more worthwhile films. Compliance is certainly small in scale – a handful of characters, two or three locations – but the ideas it expresses are worse than trifling, they’re misogynistic and cruel. So attention must be paid, if only to call it out for what it is.
“Inspired by real events,” the story takes place mostly in a fast-food eatery called ChickWich, where the manager, middle-aged Sandra (Ann Dowd), is overseeing a busy shift. The young workers on duty include Becky (Dreama Walker), a cashier; Kevin (Philip Ettinger), a cook; and Marti (Ashlie Atkinson), a supervisor. Taking a phone call in her office, Sandra finds herself speaking with an Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) about an alleged theft. According to Daniels, a ChickWich customer says a female employee just stole money from her purse, and the customer is at the police station to press charges. Daniels adds that he’s in full communication with the ChickWich regional manager on another line. Sandra has no illusions about the work ethic of the average ChickWich staffer, but she never thought one of them would commit a crime, especially right under her nose. Could it be Becky, she asks? It says Rebecca on the complaint, Daniels replies, but she’s definitely the one.
This offense feeds into a larger investigation that’s already going on at Becky’s house, Daniels continues, so he can’t come to ChickWich right away, and Sandra will have to hold Becky in her office. Sandra, still somewhat shocked by all this, agrees. Daniels then says that if Sandra searches Becky’s pockets and purse, this may clear her of the crime and end the trouble. Sandra complies again, whereupon Daniels decides that only a strip search will be definitive enough to let Becky off the hook. Becky naturally recoils, but Daniels ups the pressure by saying his “larger investigation” involves serious drug charges against her brother. Before long Becky is naked, huddled under a flimsy apron, and bending over for Sandra’s fiancé, Van (Bill Camp), who has taken over as Daniels’s surrogate.
Nastier stuff is still to come, and the movie’s trajectory never wavers: more shame, more humiliation, more degradation heaped on helpless Becky in scene after cringe-inducing scene. And the stupidity of the story is as offensive as its callousness. By the ten-minute mark I’d been struck by several obvious questions. How do Sandra and the others know they’re speaking with a real police officer? If he’s too busy with the “larger investigation” to come to ChickWich right away, couldn’t another officer zip on over? Or have we somehow come to Mayberry, where a single sheriff keeps order in the land? Why doesn’t Sandra call the regional manager on his cellphone to discuss the crisis directly? Throughout the interminable ordeal, a grand total of two characters – Kevin the cook and Harold, a cranky old custodian – realize how outlandish the situation is and take an immediate stand against it; the most intelligent line of the picture is Kevin’s capsule summary of the situation: “This is fucked!” Everyone else in Compliance complies. The movie reveals its unsurprising secret around halfway through – you guessed it, Officer Daniels is no officer – and when the story is resolved at the end, it’s done in such a way that Sandra now suffers humiliating questions and demoralizing shame. On television, no less.
More than seventy incidents like this have actually taken place in thirty states, according to a printed statement at the end of the picture. Assuming this to be correct, it’s still hard to believe that a malicious phone call could induce such dehumanized behaviors in evidently normal people working in a place as organized as ChickWich is before the viciousness kicks in. Compliance means to be a cautionary tale about the human weakness for obeying authority with too little regard for its legitimacy or decency. Some see the story as an updated version of the famous experiment conducted in the early 1960s by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, who demonstrated the willingness of many people to inflict severe pain – by administering “electrical shocks” to human subjects who were really actors – when ordered by a “researcher” decked out with the trappings of scientific expertise.
Nice try, folks, but these arguments don’t excuse the manner in which writer-director Craig Zobel unfolds this mean-spirited little movie. Its logically threadbare narrative amounts to nothing more than an escalating series of indignities meted out to a terrified female character whose suffering overpowers any cautionary qualities that might otherwise impart some moral usefulness to the proceedings. Although a couple of the actors (Dowd, Ettinger) turn in first-rate performances, their talents aren’t nearly enough to redeem the film’s emotional brutality. It’s no pleasure to report that a strain of real misogyny lurks within today’s indie cinema, and – to a lesser degree, I hope – among the moviegoers who rationalize this film’s deeply antisocial content with carelessly used labels like “dramatic” and “disturbing.” Compliance isn’t disturbing, it’s repellent. Here’s hoping it awakens the slumbering critical powers of viewers and reviewers who should know better than to put up with such stuff. This is fucked!
David Sterritt is chair of the National Society of Film Critics, film professor at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art, and chief book critic of Film Quarterly. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Cahiers du cinéma, the Journal of American History, the Christian Science Monitor, the Hitchcock Annual, and many other publications. His latest books are Spike Lee’s America, forthcoming in January from Polity Books, and The Beats: A Very Short Introduction, forthcoming in March from Oxford University Press.