Movie Review by L.L. Soares
It seems like every movie these days – especially horror – likes to declare it’s “based on a true story.” Yet, as we know, most of these are either based on the tiniest shred of something real (maybe a newspaper headline) exaggerated to the nth degree. Or they’re an outright lie.
So along comes COMPLIANCE, which is declares right away that it is “Based on True Events.” This time, however, it’s not an idle boast. Not only is COMPLIANCE based on a very real news story, it’s also pretty faithful to that story. Even if you’ll be scratching your head while you watch it.
A few years ago, there were a string of incidents where a man called fast food restaurants, claiming to be a cop, and getting managers and other employees to awful things, based on the “voice of authority” on the phone. COMPLIANCE is based on the most famous of these cases, and I remember the news story well. It was the kind of story you found yourself wondering, “How could anyone be so stupid?” But these people aren’t necessarily stupid (well, some of them are); they’ve just been trained since childhood to obey authority, just like most of us have, and it’s so engrained in them, that they react without really thinking.
COMPLIANCE begins on a Friday night at a fast food joint called ChickWich, that specializes in fried chicken sandwiches. Friday is one of their busiest nights, and the crew at this particular restaurant are understaffed and overworked. Enter franchise manager Sandra (Ann Dowd), who’s having a lousy day. Someone left the freezer open the night before, thawing out (and ruining) over a thousand dollars worth of food, and everyone is rude to her, including her staff. I’m sure this isn’t anything new for an older woman who is in charge of a workplace, and we feel for her right away.
The other main character here is Becky (Dreama Walker), a nineteen year old cashier who’s cute and perky. She’s worried that Sandra thinks she left the freezer open, and she’s scared of losing her job.
With these things in place, along with a very hectic work environment, Sandra gets a phone call from an Officer Daniels (Pat Healy). He says that he is sitting with a customer who claims that Becky stole money from her purse. He explains that he is in the middle of another case right now, and can’t come there right away, but Becky will be arrested and locked up once he can. In the meantime, can Selena do a few things to help his investigation? He also claims to have her superior on another line, and that the man has said she should cooperate.
Frazzled by her workload, depressed about the freezer, and eager to please a voice of authority, Sandra is more than happy to help out. This involves looking through Becky’s pockets, her purse, and eventually asking her to remove her clothes so that Selena can look through them for the stolen money.
When Becky gets undressed, Sandra asks one her female assistant manager, Marti (Ashlie Atkinson), to enter the room, since she asserts that this is company policy during a search (something Officer Daniels doesn’t argue with). As this continues, Sandra makes it clear that she doesn’t have the time to wait around for Daniels or any officers he may be sending, so Daniels tells her to go back to work, but is there a male employee she can have stand guard in the room until the police get there? This is when things start getting really weird.
COMPLIANCE is a small movie, but it’s well-written and pulls you into the story right away. There’s not much preamble before the phone call comes, just a quick introduction to the characters—enough for us to sympathize with them. Becky, for example, is obviously a good girl who most probably would never steal. And the caller, despite whatever lunatic things he tells the people to do, keeps everyone off guard by seeming to know everything he needs to (he does this by tricking the people on the phone into giving the information he wants, by asking just the right questions), he really does sound legitimate, and whenever his story gets a little ludicrous and anyone questions him, he pulls the “fear of jail” card, demanding that people call him “sir” and threatening to arrest anyone who doesn’t go along with him as a possible accomplice.
Is COMPLIANCE a horror film? Not really, and yet what happens in this film is horrific, and is bound to make most people squirm in their seats. I have heard that several audience members for this movie have walked out during the film, for example. As for me, I found the whole thing fascinating, especially keeping in mind that these things really happened. And the movie makes a great case for how this could have transpired.
Toward the end, we finally get to see the caller in his home (and there’s a reason he’s so good at manipulating people on the telephone), and things continue to escalate, until something truly despicable happens. All of this makes for very uncomfortable viewing, and yet not once does COMPLIANCE seem to be straining too much for believability.
A lot of people have dismissed this movie—including some critics—by saying that the movie is unbelievable. That most people would catch on earlier and prevent the situation from getting out of control. But I disagree with that assumption. I think a lot of people would react very similarly to the people in this movie do. As people in the real life case did. And it’s not all about how intelligent people are.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen people do awful things “because they’re told to.” The Nazis spring instantly to mind—the most obvious and extreme version this concept—and yet we don’t even have to go to that far. There have been several psychological test cases where people showed they were more than happy to obey orders to awful extremes. Like the Stanford Prison experiment, where subjects are broken up into groups of prisoners and guards, and as it progressed, the guards began to physically abuse the prisoners in their care. Or, even more famously, the Milgram experiment, where a psychologist tells people he is going to ask someone a question, and if they answer it incorrectly, the assistant is supposed to deliver an electric shock to them. In this experiment, the “assistants” slowly increased the “shocks” until they thought they were at an incredibly painful or almost lethal degree, yet felt justified because they were following orders.
In order to maintain order in a civilized society, we are told that there are certain authority figures we must obey. Teachers, clergy, policemen, bosses. And it is this passive response, this ingrained reflex for submission, that has allowed so many people over the years to abuse their power. Because people were afraid to say no. And COMPLIANCE shows a perfect (and perfectly awful) example of this.
This is not a pleasant film, but then again, it’s not a pleasant subject. But I found myself riveted throughout.
Craig Zobel does a great job here, writing and directing, and the cast is pretty solid, too. Ann Dowd is completely believable, and almost sympathetic (any sympathy we have for her diminishes as they story goes on, however), as the harried Sandra. Dreama Walker (currently one of the stars of the new ABC series DON’T TRUST THE B– IN APARTMENT 23) turns in a vulnerable, gutsy performance as Becky. The rest of the cast is quite good, too, from Philip Ettinger as Kevin, a co-worker who is uncooperative with the phone caller and is the first one to actually question what’s going on, to Bill Camp as Evan, Sandra’s fiancée, who is dragged into things when they get really ugly. And Pat Healy as the caller is quite effective playing a complete sociopath.
As we’re told in the film’s denouement, over 70 such calls were placed to (mostly) fast food restaurants in 30 states, so this was not a solitary incident. Although the case this movie is based on is the most notorious one.
I can see why some people wouldn’t like COMPLIANCE, because of its storyline, but there’s a difference between making an unpleasant film, and making a good film about unpleasant subject matter. I think Zobel handles this story well, and makes us understand how such a thing could occur.
I give it three and half knives. And if it’s playing near you, it deserves to be sought out.
© Copyright 2012 by L.L. Soares
LL Soares gives COMPLIANCE ~three and a half knives.