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Review: ‘Compliance’

Why Don’t They Just Say No?

Sandra (Ann Dowd) subjects her employee Becky (Dreama Walker) to an invasive ...

Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Above: Sandra (Ann Dowd) subjects her employee Becky (Dreama Walker) to an invasive search in "Compliance."

"Compliance" (playing through September 6 at Landmark's Ken Cinema) is an oddly appropriate film to watch after having been to the Instruments of Torture exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man.

"Compliance" does not deal with torture, at least not in the conventional sense that most people think of it. It's not "saw," it's not "Incendies," it's not "Rendition." It's a simple story about an employee at a fast food restaurant who's accused of stealing and what happens next.

There's no way to talk about "Compliance" without revealing some spoilers, so if you want to see the film knowing nothing, stop here and go. But please go see it. It is one of the most effectively uncomfortable film experiences I have ever sat through.

The press materials set up the story like this: "When a police officer tells you to do something, you do it. Right?"

It's a busy Friday night at an Ohio fast food restaurant. The manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd) is especially frazzled because the freezer door was left open and now they will be short on bacon and pickles. A man calls claiming to be a police officer and he asks Sandra to take aside Becky (Dreama Walker), a pretty teenage employee that he says has stolen money from a customer. He tells Sandra to search Becky's pockets and purse and then to keep her under observation till he gets there. That seems reasonable, and Sandra readily complies, thinking she is doing what the cop and her boss want her to do. But then the man on the phone asks for more. Could she do a strip search? Then there are more instructions and more increasingly invasive requests. As this "investigation" drags on we keep thinking, “Why doesn't any one just say no?” Of course the more troubling question we might ask if we are honest is, "Under what conditions might I do the same?"

And it's that more troubling second question that made me think of the SDMOM torture exhibit. The museum has panels at the exhibit about the Stanley Milgram experiment about obedience to authority figures. His experiment measured the willingness of study subjects to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts -- administering electric shock to an unseen subject -- that conflicted with their personal conscience. He was surprised by how many people actually complied.

At the film screening I attended, I could hear people growing noticeably frustrated and angry with the film. I heard people ask out loud repeatedly, why don't they just say no? And for many people in the particular circumstances of the film, I think they would say no. But the film is supposedly based on real events that happened repeatedly in multiple states.

Here's the information provided by the film: " Incredulously, more than 70 such calls occurred throughout the country over a nearly 10 year period, with the caller putting the victims through ridiculous paces – to which they all submitted themselves voluntarily, not wanting to go against the wishes of a 'police officer.' It was not until after the Mt. Washington case was an alleged caller apprehended, a 38-year-old Florida prison guard/would-be cop."

You can look at the TV news and newspaper reports on the series of crimes here.

What partially explains what happened is that the victims were particular types of people that might be more inclined to obey an authority figure. A low level, stressed out manager, an insecure teen who doesn't understand her rights, someone whose judgment is blurred by alcohol, and people who generally are unlikely to have the confidence to challenge authority or make waves.

So to all those who got angry at the film and question that people would actually do something like this, I suggest they think again and to perhaps visit the SDMOM's Instruments of Torture exhibit to consider the darker side of human nature. I know. It sounds like a big and ridiculous jump to make from this film about a prank call to the Spanish Inquisition but maybe not. In talking to those involved with the torture exhibit two things came up. One, that psychological torture is as dangerous and damaging as physical torture , so manipulating someone to do something they don't want to do is a kind of torture or abuse. And second, that dismissing something that seems small or trivial can open the door to a quick escalation to something more serious. So maybe the leap isn't that big after all.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Magnolia Pictures

Pat Healy is the man on the phone in "Compliance."

Filmmaker Craig Zobel wanted to make the film to consider why people wouldn't just say no. One thing he shows is how the caller, played by Pat Healy, is good at manipulation.

In teh press materials, Healy says, "It’s a sales technique, kind of a pleasure-and-pain thing. You screech at someone, and then you catch them off guard by reassuring them, it’s okay, you’re doing a really good job.ʼ If you’re good enough at it, you’ve just completely confused someone, and they lose any sense of themselves.”

Zobel does a great job of just making you uncomfortable, making you want to just yell at the screen and tell the characters to just stop. He has a low key, minimal style that lets events just unfold in agonizing real time. He tries not to pass judgment on his characters although that's hard for us as viewers because we all insist that we're smarter or better than them and would never do the same. It's easy for us to sit back and judge, and to dismiss the people on screen as dumb. But Zobel's film can also be seen as a warning, as a suggestion that under the right conditions, we too might not question authority and maybe we should.

"Compliance" (rated R for language and sexual content/nudity) is a truly uncomfortable yet effective film. Hopefully, the film will encourage viewers to question authority and will not instead inspire a rash of copycat prank calls.

Companion viewing: "Das Experiment," "Le Jeu de la Mort (The Game of Death)," "The Human Behavior Experiments"


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Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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