24 March 2013

Do As I Say: Compliance Review

I was a little nervous about talking a few friends into seeing Craig Zobel's new movie Compliance with me when they would have preferred to see Oz the Great and Powerful. I was fairly sure I would find it interesting, if hard to watch, but I was worried they might just find it too depressing. In the end, we all came out with similar "fascinating, compelling and disturbing" verdicts. Oh, and only a handful of people in our screening left before the end.

Almost all of the action in Compliance takes place in a fast-food restaurant, in which the manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) and employees all have their secrets and their vulnerabilities. It is a busy Friday night and a cock up involving an errant freezer door and $1,500 of wasted bacon stocks have left everyone on edge. Sandra receives a call from a man who claims to be a cop (Pat Healy) and who tells her that he is with a member of the public who is accusing a ChickWich employee of stealing from her purse. The employee in question is Becky (Dreama Walker, taking a break from wreaking havoc on Peter Florrick's re-election campaign), who is hauled out to the back room, where the caller, who says his name is Officer Daniels, asks Sandra to do increasingly inappropriate things in the name of investigating the alleged theft. It starts with a strip search and, as Daniels tells Sandra to draft in others, including her fiancĂ© (Bill Camp) in to take their parts in the rapidly unfolding horror show, it soon gets a lot more creepy.

Sandra's attitude towards Becky shifts scarily quickly too. When she first tells the shift manager Marti (Ashlie Atkinson) what is going on, she explains that a cop is claiming that Becky stole the money; later on, she tells her uncomfortable fiancé that "Becky stole something" even though the extensive strip searches and a search of Becky's bag yielded no evidence to suggest she had stolen anything. As for why the police weren't sending anyone out to ChickWich to talk to Becky and possibly make an arrest, Daniels says the theft is part of a wider investigation into Becky's older brother and his supposed involvement in drugs. The cops were all too busy collecting evidence at Becky's house, he says.

And Daniels does always have an answer for everything. He uses tactics often employed by psychics: when he first tells Sandra about the theft, he says, "you have a young, blonde employee...about 19 years old," and it is Sandra who provides Becky's name. Sometimes he messes up: at one point he says to Becky's co-worker Kevin that she stole the money from the till rather than from the customer. Remarkably, though, he gets away with it. We would all like to think that we wouldn't be so gullible, that we would question the things that we were told by a stranger on the phone who has offered no proof as to who he really is or any evidence to suggest that what he says is true, and that we wouldn't let things go as far as Sandra does. As I mentioned earlier, though, all of the employees are feeling vulnerable—they don't want to lose their job, for example—and this makes it easier for the caller to manipulate them.

The events of the film are "inspired by" the real-life case of a man who, during the 1990s and 2000s, pulled the same scam on a number of fast-food restaurants and grocery stores. The controversial experiment by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s reveals the extent to which people automatically obey authority figures, even if they believe that this obedience is causing physical or mental harm to others. Although this study would never get ethics approval now, a more recent study conducted a replication where the participants showed highly compliant and obedient behaviour in a virtual environment. It's easy, you see, to sit and watch Compliance and say, "I would never behave like that," but the scary thing about the film is that we don't know how we would react.

Compliance is only 90 minutes long and it plays out almost in real time. It is tense, compelling, thought-provoking and deeply unsettling. Dowd's Sandra is the most complex character—Walker doesn't have a lot to do other than sit around clad only in an apron and look scared—and determining who is a victim and who is to blame (and for what) is far from easy is this morally dubious field. I thought it was a decent movie, but if I'm honest, I'm more interested in the behavioural and psychological principles that underlie it than in this specific story. In places, it reminded me of some of the more annoying Michael Haneke trademarks—like when Paul in Funny Games turns to the camera and chides the audience for their complicity with his torturing of Ann and George. And much as I found Compliance interesting, I would probably have got more out of a well-written behavioural psychology book; luckily, Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test is next on my list.

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