Motion pictures revel in telling stories about rebels and outsiders and misfits who refuse to respect authority. From The Wild One to Cool Hand Luke to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and beyond, there's a vicarious thrill to be had in watching others not do as they're told.
"You may not enjoy it, but you're not likely to forget it any time soon."
Compliance tips in the opposite direction. And that makes for a delectably unnerving cinematic experience fraught with implications about inroads into rights and privacy in the name of nebulous things like 'security’.
Compliance is set in a mundane chain restaurant in Ohio, U.S.A. America prides herself on being a free society. Unless you're a criminal, it's highly unlikely that you'll simply vanish as citizens do in less 'safe’ places on the map. The rule of law is taken seriously. If only from watching cop shows on TV, people tend to know their rights.
A claustrophobic drama inspired by actual events and laid out with creepy, effective strokes, Compliance demonstrates how easy it is for hard won rights to slip away, for free will to morph into blind obedience and for nutty, degrading behaviour to get a foothold in an otherwise mundane setting populated by otherwise rational human beings.
The down-to-earth, unshowy performances are excellent, with special praise for slightly dowdy Ann Dowd as Sandra, the beleagured manager of a ChickWich franchise who takes her cues from a voice on the telephone (Pat Healy) claiming to be a police officer.
We in the audience have visual indications that the man calling himself 'Officer Daniels’ probably doesn't work in law enforcement. But Sandra, for whom a smoothly run restaurant relies on each level of hierarchy performing according to plan, is eager to please the smooth, authoritative voice on the phone.
Where this desire-to-please leads resulted in some exasperated audience members talking back to the screen or getting up and leaving the cinema at early festival showings.
You can call the people on screen 'stupid’ but you can also probably think of something you yourself have done that was 'obviously’ less-than-wise, especially in retrospect.
Here, I'll go first. Earlier this year my husband and I gave 600 euros in insurance money to a contractor who was supposed to use it to purchase and install a sink and small hot water heater in our apartment after the original tank fell on the original sink, breaking it in half. The model we chose from a catalogue cost 400 euros and it seemed to make sense to give the contractor all the money up front to expedite the installation. We never heard from him again and the registration number for his company turned out to be bogus.
Gosh, we feel stupid about our actions. But the contractor seemed to want to help us and we were flattered by his personal approach. I like to think that if he'd said "I need to see you naked to the waist so I can judge what height the sink should be when you're in your stocking feet washing your face," I would have objected.
The voice on the phone tells Sandra he needs her help because things are really busy at the police station. Officer Daniels says that one of Sandra's employees, 19-year-old Becky (Dreama Walker), has stolen money from a customer's purse. He says the customer is right there with him at the station and things aren't looking good at all for dishonest Becky.
Sandra defends Becky. Becky vigorously and convincingly denies having done any such thing. But Officer Daniels persuades Sandra to sequester Becky in a back room at the ChickWich. Things go downhill from there. Oddly, despite the alleged level of activity at the police station, Officer Daniels has the luxury of staying on the phone for, gosh, a really long time.
Crank phone calls (aka 'phony phone calls’) date as far back as when telephone switchboards became automated. Posing as a customer for a popular brand of pipe tobacco that also comes in pouches, generations of prank callers would ask the adult who answered the phone at the local tobacco shop, "Do you have Prince Albert in a can?"
"Yes, we do."
"Well, let him out before he suffocates!" Slam down the phone. Giggle.
'Inspired by true events’ we are informed via huge block capital letters as Compliance begins. Writer/directer Craig Zobel says he has actually toned down what really took place. If true, that’s scarier than a theatre full of zombies watching Paranormal Activity.
Sandra is not a bad person or an unreasonable boss. But she's under pressure on this particular day. They lost $1400 worth of inventory because somebody left the freezer door ajar. Staff will have to tell customers that bacon and pickles are unavailable. And a company official just may show up for an inspection.
We are introduced to the ChickWich staff before the mealtime rush starts. Becky is a slim, pleasant young woman with blonde hair and big eyes. Everybody seems to get along fine.
Sandra is called to the phone in the office behind the cooking and serving area. The caller identifies himself as a police officer and says that Becky has been accused of stealing from a customer. If the same voice had said "Do you have Prince Albert in a can? Well – let him out!" Sandra – a sensible woman pushing 60 and engaged to be married to her not-overly-bright boyfriend – would have said "Very funny. I don't have time for this" and hung up. But when the voice instructs Sandra to detain Becky and search her belongings, it's the start of a strange episode with its own frightening momentum.
Any qualms Sandra has are expertly detoured or laid to rest by the voice of the cop. The voice ratchets up its tone of authority as needed and the ChickWich staff finds itself going along with increasingly outrageous demands.
We see the ordinariness of the surroundings: Vestiges of snow in the parking lot, customers chewing at nondescript tables or voicing disappointment when told they can't have bacon or pickles with their order. And while it's business as usual at the counter, things in the back room devolve.
Compliance explores the speed with which common sense can fall by the wayside in the face of authority. It shows the subtle pressures of the workplace and how managers and their subordinates choose to abdicate power or stand their ground. It explores how a seed of doubt can blossom into a rumour, going from "That's ridiculous" to "That sounds about right" in no time at all.
If this were a studio production rather than a low-budget independent film, Becky's plight would probably be temporary – the designated hero would come to the rescue. But what's on display here is far less formulaic and way more disturbing.
Compliance is hard to shake off as mere entertainment. You may not enjoy it, but you're not likely to forget it any time soon.