Compliance is a simple film with a complicated relationship with the nature of obeying authority. It’s a cinematic equivalent of the Milgram experiment that is practically mandatory on all PSYCH 101 Syllabi. In black and white footage, a subject is asked to administer questions to an unseen subject, whom he believes is getting electric shocks for wrong answers. A off-screen authority figure tells the subject that “the experiment must go on.” And it does go on; the experiment famously shows what humans are willing to comply with an authority.
Compliance is based on a bizarre true crime that received little press. In 2004, a man called a McDonald’s claiming to be a police officer reporting one of the employees had stolen from a customer, and convinced the manager to interrogate, eventually strip-searching the employee. The prank caller may have derived sexual arousal from his prank, despite not even being in the same state as the McDonald’s; if anything, it was the feeling of power and manipulation.
It’s easy from our armchairs to condemn these people, to scoff at their stupidity.The masterful aspect of Compliance is that it gives characters and depths to the people who, yes, were that gullible. To answer the question, how could this happen? I think we need to see it play out on a more personal level, see ourselves in the people who did believe.
The woman who does believe it is Sandra, the overworked, overly anxious fast food restaurant manager played with subtle brilliance by Ann Dowd. Sandra takes her job seriously, and through dialogue the viewer can immediately assume that she aims to please. She shows a fear for failure in her franchise but still shows care for her employees. This woman is the perfect target for such a prank; she wants so much to do well yet still wants to avoid conflict.
After an exposition that tells us that they are short-staffed and short-supplied for the day, the phone call comes in from Officer Daniels, informing Sandra that one of her employees has been accused of stealing from a customer. The employee is Becky, a pretty, naive, nineteen-year-old played also well by Dreama Walker, of the late and great Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23. Walker plays a completely different role her, completely opposite of the perky, do-gooder June in the sitcom. She, too, in her innocence, is a target for manipulation.
Sandra does ask the questions of the officer that you would expect her to, such as “why can’t you come here and interrogate her?” and “why didn’t the customer come to me?”. At this point, Sandra is the stand in for us. Yes, this sounds ludicrous, officer.
The prank caller, “Officer Daniels,” appeals to Sandra’s sense of doing what’s right. He appeals to her intelligence. He uses her kindness and giving people the benefit of the doubt to manipulate her how he wants. All he needs to do is convince her to do one small thing for him, and he’s won. Once she gives in a little, he lunges on his prey. He convinces her first that she needs to search Becky herself, then strip search her, narrating the entire incident over the phone.
Sandra hands him off to other people, and since Sandra is their authority figure, and they also fall prey to the charismatic and convincing Officer Daniels. Over the next few hours, he convinces people to hide her clothes from her, touch and examine her body, and then to perform sexual acts.
There is no surprise twist in this film. Knowing that it is based on a true story, and having the superiority of being an all-knowing audience, we know this man is not a police officer. The film does not show “Officer Daniels” until the last third of the film, and his seemingly normalness (a middle-aged man with a family) makes his fetish even more disturbing and vicious. This is not a basement-dweller, this is a man who makes good money and lives normally. We unfortunately do not learn more about this man or his motivations, which was a deliberate choice, and a good choice at that. This film is not about a big reveal or an evil villain, it’s about showing us that yes, people would believe this, and they are not so different from us.
In the epilogue, the film becomes a bit more ripped-from-the-headlines when they show Sandra in a television interview a few months later. She is being sued by Becky, and you can’t really blame her. Somehow, we can’t totally hate Sandra for it. And that is a testament to the quality of scripting and most likely due to the acting chops of Ann Dowd and Pat Healy.
This is also a film that has a slight resemblance to what I have named poor-face; Poor-face is when film actors portray the poor and working class sometimes in an over-exaggerated way, exploiting what they think the have-nots act. (See: Killer Joe) To be fair, this is not the case in this film, as the characters, despite being seen as “small-town fast-food employees” are given the respect and depth they deserve. And hopefully, if the film does its job, the viewer will believe that yes, maybe we are not as resistant to manipulation than we think we are.
The most common reaction I’ve heard to this film is that it’s really hard to watch. There’s no blood, no guts, no gore, but the extreme unease in subconsciously knowing that it really could happen.