Compliance plays out pretty much how you would expect it to but yet it still remained a powerful watch.
Based off true life events is Craig Zobel’s Compliance, a controversial yet captivating look at how people fail to know their own basic rights and how gullible people are while in the presence of authority. Partly shot in docudrama style, the film ultimately shows the cruel manner of our own human nature. Reactions to Compliance have been fairly mixed after premiering earlier this year at Sundance Film Festival. It continued to divide audiences when it played at SXSW a few months later and it is easy to see why.
The film opens with a major crisis at a local fast food restaurant when one employee failed to close a freezer door overnight resulting in $1,400 in damaged inventory. Because of that they will be short on pickles and bacon for a Friday shift. And what is a fast food restaurant without pickles and bacon? The manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) deals with the situation by instructing employees to use just two strips of bacon per sandwich due to the shortage.
Right off the bat you get a sense of one-upmanship competition between Sandra and a particular employee named Becky (Dreama Walker), a cute blonde girl who just decided she found the perfect pink case for her cell phone. Becky is having a conversation with another employee about a new guy she is sort of seeing which impresses the other employee when Sandra walks by. Sandra interjects that she just knows her man is going to ask her to marry him. They both respond with congratulations. Becky mentions that this guy has been sending her pictures of his abs but Sandra states that she “sexts” with her guy often. A fairly awkward conversation between a middle-aged manager and a younger employee.
But still there is something genuine that Sandra projects. She seems down-to-earth and has a great work ethic. It is seen when her husband calls her to ask if it is alright if he stops by a friends place to have a few beers while he waits for her to get off (he hardly seems like someone who would sext). Even though she is slammed with work she kindly responds that he can do so without her permission but that she just does not want him getting too drunk is all.
The story really begins when Sandra receives a phone call from a police officer informing her that a customer had money stolen from them at the restaurant. The officer tells Sandra that they have someone who can testify that Becky was the one responsible for this. Sandra can hardly believe it but follows the orders to detain her for further questioning.
The officer on the phone has Sandra check the pockets of Becky and even take her cell phone and purse away from her. Becky denies stealing anything from a customer and although Sandra seems to believe Becky, she follows the orders the officer is giving her. It all seems fairly convincing until the officer asks Sandra to strip search Becky while they wait for the officers to arrive at the store.
Another flag rises when Sandra steps out of the room and the officer on the phone tells Becky to pretend that this whole thing does not bother her because of the stress it puts on Sandra. Just like Sandra did, Becky compiles with the officer even though she knows she is innocent and that it goes against her common logic. As crazy as it may seem to viewers, most people in their position would probably do the same thing.
Studies have shown that better judgment gets thrown out when authorities are persuading you do something. Even if the requests cause harm to the other person the majority of people will do it if they are told to. The famous Milgram social psychology experiment proved this when participants were told to give an electric shock to the other participants. The results of the experiment were that 65% followed orders and administered the final shock to the other person.
One of the best parts about Compliance was the acting. I have only seen some of the cast in smaller roles before but nothing as substantial as here. Each played their convincing role as humble people that are forced to do things that make them feel uncomfortable in a bizarre set of circumstances. The two leads, Dowd and Walker are especially good.
Compliance plays out pretty much how you would expect it to but yet it still remained a powerful watch. What makes the premise so compelling and at the same time haunting is how it accurately shows weakness in human nature. If there is one thing you will get from the film, it is a reaction. Do not be surprised to find yourself debating your side when the credits roll.