Go see Compliance. Why? Because I told you to. If you still think that kind of persuasion sounds unrealistic after seeing it, I’d be surprised. Craig Zobel’s second feature is about a fast-food chain manager’s unwitting involvement in an act of sexual assault. The unassuming and complying Sandra (Ann Dowd) receives a phone call from a man (played by Pat Healy) identifying himself as a police officer, and is told a worker is under suspicion of theft. She obeys his instructions and pulls one of her young employees, Becky (Dreama Walker), away from the counter and into the back. A chain of events occurs with an ending so outrageous that it only really makes sense while it’s happening, and all the while the scenario pushes the limits of what one might think everyday people are capable of. To boot, there is an underlying accusation: we in the audience might be just like the folks on screen.
Dowd is remarkably convincing as the unlikely offender. She is a cauldron of inner turmoil from start to finish, yet skillfully renders a character that is always credible, despite the circumstances. Sandra clearly means to do good in her life—she is far from a tyrannical boss—but she has a tinge of deep-seated antipathy for others. Authority is a way of life for her, and merely the suggestion that one of her employees may have been involved in wrongdoing is good enough for her to produce an indictment. Quickly forgetting everything about civil rights she learned in high school civics class (this is a joke), she locks Becky in the store room and awaits orders from the man on the other end of the phone, with whom she’s only had a cursory verbal introduction. His next order is to strip search the poor girl.
Compliance is a horror film, and maybe the most horrible kind. It describes a scenario that is not so far from real life. It frightens us all the more because it incites psychological terror. And it’s a true story. Zobel became fascinated by articles describing a decade-long string of events that culminated with the arrest of a prank caller in 2004 who was alleged to have called dozens of fast-food restaurants in small towns around the country and convinced the managers to strip search their employees. Coming on the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court decision this year that sanctions strip searches in nearly every law enforcement scenario, Compliance couldn’t feel timelier. If you went to see The Dark Knight Rises and found it had its finger on the pulse of any number of this nation’s current social anxieties, you haven’t seen anything yet.
Meanwhile, the strip search is just the beginning. What follows is less about what people will do when they’re told to do it, but rather about what horny undereducated yokels will do when put in a room with a barely legal, blonde hottie wearing only an apron. The most painful part is that we in the audience are on the edge of our seat eagerly waiting to see what happens next. Whether it’s rape fantasy, voyeurism, or just plain morbid curiosity, there is an anticipation that builds over how much skin we’ll see, how far others will make Becky go. Sandra may be out there doing the dirty work, but we’re all back here rubbernecking, complicit through curiosity.
That Zobel was so successful in suspending our disbelief that such horrific events are possible is a testament to his skill as both a screenwriter and director, and to the strength of the cast—Ann Dowd in particular. But it also speaks volumes about what acts we believe our fellow humans can and do commit on a daily basis. I wouldn’t put one of these scenes past some people on any day of the week, and neither does Zobel. He’s no pessimist, though. The anonymous caller has a careful plan here, and it takes a series of synchronous events for it to succeed, and most importantly, it requires someone—in this case, Sandra—to take personal responsibility. He’s not there himself at the restaurant. He doesn’t have a partner on the inside, or even a video camera. This anonymous prankster is fascinated by whether someone might join in on his plan. And in this case it takes the violation of just one innocent victim in order to see the plan enacted and to get his (and our) jollies from a safe distance. Not such a bad deal?