Compliance (2012)

Compliance first published by Little White Lies

There is panic early one winter’s morning at the ChickWich fast food restaurant. The refrigerator was left open overnight ruining valuable stock and as put-upon store manager Sandra (Ann Dowd, capturing every nuance of fazed and confused) tries to clear up the mess before her own manager can find out, she stresses about a rumoured visit from a ‘secret shopper’.

Then, with customers pouring in, Sandra gets a call from Officer Daniels (Pat Healy). Apparently, a customer has reported a theft and Sandra finds herself, her colleagues and even her fiancé Van (Bill Camp) being deputised over the phone to assist in Daniels’ probing investigation of young counter server Becky (Dreama Walker). In what follows, a terrible crime is committed with the qualified consent of all parties. The victims are also facilitators, while the true mastermind remains absent.

If Compliance were a straightforward piece of fiction, then what its characters submit to doing or having done to them would defy most viewers’ credulity. Yet Craig Zobel’s film is not just, as the familiar, often unreliable subtitle claims, ‘inspired by true events’. It also clings with surprising fidelity to the particulars of the actual case, if not to the names and locations involved (the real incident took place at a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Kentucky). And while Compliance is more docu-drama (adapted from court testimonies and video evidence) than pure fiction, it still very much concerns an improvised sort of role play, stage-managed remotely by a manipulative director who at one point even asks Becky to be “a good actress” for him.

In keeping with the title, Becky and others comply with the caller’s every demand, no matter how ludicrous or extreme, thanks to his verbal dexterity, authoritative posturing and insistent tone. If Compliance approximates a dramatised version of the Stanford and Milgram experiments (which investigated the psychology of unconscientious obedience to authority), the film adds to these a social dimension, by showing minimum-wage McJobbers bending over (in one case literally) to carry out arbitrary, unreasonable orders perceived to have come ‘down’ from white-collar management or representatives of the law.

As the puppetmaster’s identity is gradually revealed, Zobel’s morality thriller offers uncomfortable commentary on the sport that can so easily be had at the expense of those on the lower rungs of the social ladder.

Asked after the event why she at no point just said no to her ordeal, Becky replies, “I just knew it was going to happen.” In this way the film gives voice to the inevitability with which the underclass is – and allows itself to be – screwed by the self-serving whims of those calling the shots. It’s what makes Compliance a parable for these socially polarised times: for in this fatalistic tragedy of corruption, collusion and cunning coercion, sadly everyone plays their assigned part.

Enjoyment: Zobel lays bare the mechanics of his own manipulations…

In Retrospect: …and defies us, uneasily, to laugh at a divided society’s sick joke.

© Anton Bitel