Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 31, 2013)
Most psych students learn about the Milgram Experiment. Yale’s Stanley Milgram used a “teaching session” that involved the pretend use of electric shocks administered by volunteers to show how far some people will follow authority; many would go deep into the pain threshold when ordered to do so.
2012’s Compliance follows that theme. Set at a busy fast food restaurant called ChickWich, manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) receives a phone call from a cop named Officer Daniels (Pat Healy). He claims that employee Becky (Dreama Walker) stole money from a customer, so he needs her assistance to deal with the matter.
As part of this, Sandra takes Becky to a storeroom and aids in the investigation. This starts slowly but becomes more and more invasive, as Officer Daniels orders Sandra to take more extreme measures such as a strip search. We watch as matters spiral out of control.
When it comes to a discussion of the film, I find it tough to know how much plot information to relate. I’ll try not to say too much – and won’t go beyond what the synopsis on IMDB – but if you want to avoid any potential spoilers, you should probably jump to the technical parts of the review.
Most movies “based on true events” take their inspirations loosely. That’s not the case with Compliance, which uses an incident at a Kentucky McDonald’s as its template. A look at what happened there in 2004 shows many similarities between the movie and the reality.
In this instance, I think it’s more important than usual that the fiction match the fact due to the nature of the material. As you watch Compliance, you’ll find yourself in a state of disbelief that matters could go as far as they do. Would a cop really order a civilian to make a naked girl do jumping jacks to try to get money to fall out of her vagina? Of course not, and it seems insane that anyone would go along with such a command.
Except someone did – and they did even more than that, all in the name of obeying authority.
That gives Compliance a heft that it otherwise might’ve lacked. Not that I’m saying it wouldn’t have been an interesting film if it’d failed to adhere closely to fact, but when we lose our hopes that we’re just watching movie fantasy, the product hits harder.
Favoring subtlety over shock, Compliance isn’t a film that’ll give you real jolts. Instead, it builds slowly and treats events in an understated way that allows them more power. It makes sense that the alleged cop’s requests start small and build, as this helps draw in the participants; each new demand escalates the oddness just a little bit, so the steps don’t seem extreme. They end up in absurd territory, but they take a while to get there, so we can more easily believe the outcomes.
One potential problem here comes from the reveal that “Officer Daniels” doesn’t exist – he’s some schmuck making an extremely elaborate prank call. We learn this maybe halfway through the film, and the revelation creates potential concerns, as it takes away some of the drama. We’re a bit more invested in the nature of the events when we think it’s a real policeman who makes the demands; when we find out it’s not, we potentially might feel like the characters who continue to listen to him are dopes.
That said, I’m still not sure how I feel about the reveal. On one hand, it does take away from some of the tension, but on the other, it also removes some of the unreality from the situation. As the “officer’s” demands get more and more outrageous, we find it tougher to believe a real cop would make them. It’s probably necessary for us to understand that there’s no actual law enforcement personnel involved or the film would lose us.
Whatever potential flaws pop up, Compliance remains tense and well-executed. It takes a chilling real-life situation and dares us to see how far it’ll go – and what impact it’ll have in those involved. This becomes a scary thriller made even more unnerving by the reality behind it.