The new movie "Compliance" is an intensely visceral cinematic psych experiment that will leave you clutching your head in disbelief or shouting at the characters on the screen.
Based on a true story, the movie opens at a drab ChickWich fast-food franchise in suburban Ohio, where we see harried middle-aged manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) getting berated by a corporate suit. It's Friday, the busiest day of the week, and one of her underlings left the freezer door open the night before, spoiling $15,000 worth of bacon. Then, still smarting from that, she gets mocked behind her back by her pretty 19-year-old employee Becky (Dreama Walker).
But then the day takes a turn for the weird when Sandra gets a call from someone claiming to be a police officer. He tells her that an employee fitting Becky's description has been accused by a customer of theft and asks her to detain the teen. Through a deft use of flattering and threats, the voice at the other end of the phone then gets Sandra to confiscate Becky's cell phone and to strip-search her. Later, the desperately busy manager gets other restaurant employees and even her fiancé Van to follow the police officers' increasingly bizarre and humiliating demands. It's no spoiler to reveal that the caller is, in fact, not a cop but some creep with a burner cell phone and some time to kill.
At the end of the film, when Sandra is asked why she didn't just stop following the orders of a madman, she responds lamely with "I did what I was told to do." They are the same words uttered by Nazis during the Nuremberg trials, by former Japanese cult members, and the courtmarshalled guards of Abu Ghraib.
"Compliance" shows with distressing accuracy the speed at which a normal, basically good person can transform into a brainwashed automaton for a faceless authority figure. And much of that process has to do with the manipulation of language, something that director Craig Zobel completely nails. The caller, played with eerie aplomb by Pat Healy, uses the same dehumanized, yet weirdly polite, tone as cops, prison guards, and TSA agents. Early on, he demands that Becky refer to him as "Sir," threatening her with incarceration. Once the fear sets in and she grants him that implied authority, it's a slippery slope to coerced naked jumping jacks and worse.
Zobel punctuates the movie with mundane shots of roiling deep fryers, stacked paper cups, and chatting diners. They easily recall Hannah Arendt's oft-quoted line about the "banality of evil." And while that seems indisputable, the shots also locate the film. This is the bottom-end of corporate capitalism. These workers are as dispensable and replaceable as units they hawk. That insecurity pervades the movie, as Sandra, Becky, and the other characters in the movie, with the exception of the caller, are people who need their crappy jobs to make ends meet. That desperation, conditioned by years of dwindling job prospects and a collapsing social safety net, makes them already pliable to crazed demands of authority. And the caller, like any good predator, exploits that to the hilt.
At one point in the movie, we see the caller struggling not to laugh as he forces his virtual captives into yet another humiliation. For him, in his comfortable upper-middle-class home, the call is a lark. For the folks in the restaurant, it's a matter of life and death.
The movie caused a huge controversy when it premiered at Sundance this past year, and it's not hard to see why. Based on a true story, "Compliance" hits the viewer hard on a deep, primal level, but its detached style gives the audience few handles on how to interpret what they saw. My own thought on the movie have been evolving days after watching it. I'm still not quite sure what to make of it, but any movie that makes you think is worth seeing.
"Compliance" opens in limited release Friday 8/17.
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