If someone called your place of business, told you they were an officer of the law, and asked you to perform a strip/cavity search on a subordinate employee, as a sane and rational person you wouldn't comply. But in over 70 documented cases in the US, most people did comply. A man calls the store pretending to be a police officer, describes an employee that he says is being investigated for criminal activity, and tells the manager to perform a strip search because all units are currently busy with more important matters. The requests escalate and result in sexual assault. This isn't just Craig Zobel's new film, COMPLIANCE; this is reality.
The film follows a day in a fast food chain where manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) receives a phone call from a man (Pat Healy) claiming to be a police officer. He describes a young woman who works at the register, who Sandra believes to be Becky (Dreama Walker), and tells her that Becky has been accused of stealing money from a customer's purse. The man gets Sandra to take Becky to the back to perform a strip search, and things become increasingly uncomfortable and unbelievable from there.
We can postulate on the rampant ignorance and stupidity in this country and where it comes from, the causes and the cyclical nature of a society that seems hellbent on keeping itself down, but it's not just ignorance and blindness that allows this situation to take place. It's an innate recognition of and deferral to authority, which isn't necessarily indicative of our ignorant nature. We've been taught and we teach children to recognize and obey authority because there is a definitive chain, and those that are higher know what's best for us. It's a dangerous, naive way of thinking.
There's something to be said for the brilliance of the perpetrator (played with delightful creepiness by Healy), who creates a system wherein he can manipulate and control all involved almost effortlessly. He starts small with simple, reasonable requests: bring the employee to the back, she may have stolen something, check her belongings, check her pockets, don't let her leave, etc. With each innocuous act he rewards Sandra with verbal praise, assuring her that she's an asset, she's doing the right thing, and maybe she's better than working in this janky fast food joint. If you were in your mid-40s and your biggest life accomplishment was becoming the manager of a fast food restaurant, it might be easy to fall victim to such manipulation when you feel as though so many have overlooked your wasted potential. The man preys on Sandra's kindness, her gullibility, and her need for recognition.
As the day wears on, more people become involved. When another young man at the restaurant is asked to strip search Becky (for a second time), he refuses, but he also doesn't tell anyone what he was asked to do. The failure to communicate is something instilled in each person who picks up the phone and speaks to the perpetrator. A subconscious trigger goes off and they know deep down that this is shameful, but they're cornered and can't back out now. Head down, do as you're told.
COMPLIANCE is a pitch-perfect, oft-brilliant examination of the marriage of willful ignorance and our deferral to authority. It is, quite honestly, one of the most uncomfortable experiences you will ever have in the theater. Zobel manages to create moments that are simultaneously discomforting and humorous, in a way that calls into question the hypothetical of our own reaction in a similar situation without asking us to castigate Sandra, or the assistant manager, or Sandra's fiance. We are simply stunned, our moral compass spinning frantically. Any rational person could not possibly be compelled to act this way, and yet, this story is based on fact. Each passing moment brings with it unnerving escalation. Sandra's fiance commits the most heinous of acts in a sequence where the fake cop communicates his most absurdly disturbing commands. And the fiance complies because he can't imagine a police officer would have him do these things without good reason, but there's also a nagging question: Is he doing these things because he is complying with authority, or is he acting out of willful ignorance to fulfill his own morally corrupt desires?
It's not just a deferral to police authority - Becky complies because she inherently trusts her manager. Managers are our superiors and our barometers for right and wrong in the work place. They keep us in line, micro-manage us into submission, and make sure everything runs according to procedure by following the rigid outlines in manuals they keep in giant binders on their desks. Becky falls victim to authority in possibly the worst way because she's respecting police authority, but also submitting to (and hoping to find some sort of safety in) the authority she knows and trusts.
Those familiar with the Milgram experiments will no doubt find the psychology at work in COMPLIANCE to be utterly captivating. The Milgram experiments asked participants to engage in physically harmful acts that conflicted with their conscience, and examined the basic need to obey orders, believing that no matter what, they couldn't be held responsible and no one would be legitimately harmed. COMPLIANCE does much of the same, with its characters effortlessly goaded into believing that, no matter what, everything will be okay because authority is supreme and will take care of you as long as you comply.
Yet another layer of morality in conjunction with observance of authority is at work here, and that's our trust, as the audience, in our filmmakers. Like Michael Haneke, who implicates his audience as complicit in the crimes on screen as they digest the disturbing imagery as entertainment, Zobel confronts us with the idea that we might want to see these people pushed even farther in this sick experiment to the detriment of another human being - regardless of their fictional status. Are we just as guilty for our judgment of the participants and their blatant ignorance, our digestion of this distressing display as entertainment, and our insatiable desire to know more about this real life incident, no matter how disturbing? Or are we simply complying with the filmmaker, who knows what is best?
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