One of the more controversial films of the 2012 Dallas International Film Festival (or any Festival really) is Craig Zobel’s harsh reality-based account of a phone prank pushed entirely too far. Likened, in theory, to the Milgram experiment, Compliance tells a tale of the desire to appease (or comply with) authority figures gone wild. It’s a story too unbelievable to be true but is and, as the film shows, if you layer something ever so slightly, you can push any one past better judgement and far beyond their breaking point.
Compliance starts with an already stressed fast-food manager Sandra prepping for what will be a normally busy Friday. Everything from running out of supplies, to dealing with less than devoted employees, she’s just trying to keep it all afloat. When a police officer calls Sandra and tells her that one of her employees has stolen from a customer, Sandra is quick to help and even quicker to resolve the issue. The officer asks for her help in detaining Becky until he and other officers can arrive. In the meantime he asks Sandra to check Becky’s pockets, then her purse and then, not long after, perform a strip search. It’s at that moment the characters (and the audience) lose cabin pressure as the requests from the “officer” are even more invasive, confusing and demeaning. Sandra and Becky comply time and again, all in the name of the law, but are lead down a path when many, many times they should have turned back.
First off, Compliance is not an easy film to take in. What the film shows is the mind-altering power of suggestion. It’s a sickening house of cards that is built ever so slowly. It’s a flimsy practical joke that really could topple at any minute…but it doesn’t. The “officer” uses very generic phrases and gets inside Sandra’s head by claiming that not only is he a cop but he’s also got her regional manager involved with this situation. With those two pegs in place she gets on board to help, really out of fear, and just like anyone would, wants to be done with every regretful and guilt-laced request.
The ludicrous, yes at times even laughable, sequences take their toll on these characters and like wilted flowers, nearly everyone succumbs to the requests of the “officer” just to help poor Becky out of this mess. Although, like a psychologist, he knows just how to carry the conversation with leading questions, quick change of tone, etc. Like a conscience working overtime, the story constantly asks the question how far will you go?, but like the characters it too gets tired of asking it and succumbs to the morality void situation. It spirals out of control and you could almost hear a subliminal commentary narrating the dizzying events as fear leads to confusion and confusion lead to compliance.
Watching the events unfold, it’s easy to criticize in retrospect especially as an observer. The characters are so deep in the morbid practical joke that they become desensitized to the situation. It’s degrading and embarrassing but they continue to acquiesce. Shouts of protest are likely to be heard in the audience and there’s lots of times where the characters hesitate and look to balk. They know that something doesn’t feel right, but again, with enough persuasion anyone can be encouraged to go along with a situation. Shocking, unbelievable and yes, again, sadly all true.
Certain films have elements that make us uncomfortable and certainly leave many with a psychological hangover (or scarring) after leaving the theater. Despite the lack of any damaging visuals, there sure is a hefty amount of mental/emotional stress and exhaustion. In the end, Zobel’s film plays like a very powerful PSA for being aware of your personal rights. It should get us to ask more questions and not to follow orders just because someone with supposed authority tells you to do so. Compliance is not an easy film to recommend but similar to Requiem For A Dream, source material notwithstanding, the film fires on all cylinders. It’s well crafted and acted, paced superbly and if you leave feeling deflated, then Craig Zobel’s work has the desired effect on all of us. His next agenda would probably be to have us apply what we’ve learned, at least that was the case with Aronofsky’s film anyway.