The first thing to know about Compliance is that it’s based on a true story. To know this, however, also requires a serious amount of personal control. When you watch this you’re going to say to yourself, “No one would ever do that.” You may think that, but remember, you know they did.
To watch Compliance is to willingly participate in a social experiment without actually signing up for one. Your acceptance is your ticket stub and like any experiment under which the societal norms are tested, you’re going to be uncomfortable. If you’re not, you’re still just as much a part of the experiment, though hopefully you’re also in the minority.
Compliance begins with Sandra (Ann Dowd), a middle-aged manager at a fast food restaurant, explaining to her employees that they’re out of pickles and low on bacon. It’s Friday, it’s sure to be busy and a “secret shopper” is expected at any moment so while there are a few hurdles, and they’re short-staffed, it’s not a day to screw up. Within minutes of starting her day, Sandra is frazzled, but it’s about to get worse.
Later, Sandra’s assistant manager (Ashlie Atkinson) tells her the police are on the phone in her office and need to speak with her. Sandra takes the call only to learn one of her employees, Becky (Dreama Walker), has been accused of stealing from a customer. Sandra is asked to bring Becky into her office and hold her until the police arrive, but that’s not all she’s asked to do.
Becky, a teenager more interested in what she’s going to do that night than flipping burgers, denies stealing anything. The voice on the other line isn’t accepting this, suggesting Sandra strip search Becky, check her clothes and underwear for the alleged stolen money. You say that would never happen, but it did, and it does and that’s not where it ends.
Writer/director Craig Zobel found the true story that inspired Compliance while researching the Milgram experiment suggesting people will obey authority figures a high percentage of the time. In terms of what is seen here, this initial strip search is only the start of the depravity you will experience.
Compliance is not an easy watch, improved greatly by Zobel’s unflinching, yet never overly demonstrative camera, and the actors he’s hired to play out the madness. Dowd is outstanding as the befuddled manager, unable to focus as she attempts to maintain control of her restaurant and the situation with Becky. Each and every request is first met with a quizzical look or questioning, “What?” But the soft and trusting voice on the line convinces her what she’s doing is best for all.
As the scared teen, Walker gives herself over to the production to the point you feel for her as a person and as an actor. The situation certainly plays a large part, but it takes talent to exude the sense of “uncomfortable” Walker so clearly possesses. As for Bill Camp’s contribution to the picture as Sandra’s soon-to-be fiance… Well, I’ll leave that for you to experience on your own.
I’d love to see results and opinions of Compliance from screenings all over the world, from coast-to-coast and everywhere in-between. Opinions are likely to change based on age, financial and social standings and those results will likely say a lot about who we are as humans and what we think of ourselves. Were you ever titillated? Disgusted? Unmoved? Frustrated? Surprised? What caused you to feel this way? The questions could go on and on and the results would be as astonishing as the fact based story that inspired this disturbing (watch only once) feature play out.