The defence “I was only following orders”, christened by panicked Nazis at the Nuremberg trials has become synonymous with those looking to absolve themselves of guilt or responsibility.
It’s a mitigation that runs through writer-director Craig Zobel’s deeply unsettling examination of the powers of authority and our willingness to blindly obey it.
Compliance centres on a prank phone call to an American fast food restaurant from someone claiming to be a police officer. The ‘officer’ swiftly convinces manager Sandra that young female employee Becky is responsible for stealing money from a customer’s purse. Not wishing to get into trouble and all too willing to accept her supposed guilt for the sake of an easier day, the caller convinces Sandra and then others to subject Becky to increasingly dehumanising and humiliating treatment.
Incredibly, the film is inspired by true events, specifically a 2004 incident when a man masquerading as a cop called a suburban McDonald’s and told the manager to imprison an employee he claimed was a thief and strip search her. The confused manager agreed and even drafted in her fiancé to guard her. Depressingly, this was not the only incident of its type; more than 70 similar cases were reported in 30 U.S states before someone was arrested.
If Compliance achieves nothing else, it is sure to have you shaking your head in disbelief that something like this could have been allowed to happen. Some have reacted so strongly to the film that they have walked out of screenings.
Zobel’s matter-of-fact directorial style lets the narrative play out and invites us to make our own minds up. The use of tight close-ups lends the film a fetid, claustrophobic tension; however, the decision to reveal the caller’s identity feels like a mistake. The film would have worked even more effectively, been even more stifling had it not strayed outside of the restaurant and let the audience deduce for themselves that the caller’s increasingly outrageous demands were the result of a sick prank.
The caller pulls the strings of his unwitting puppets from the very beginning and gets off on how far he can go. Giving only the vaguest description of the thief, Sandra does the work for him by assuming he’s talking about Becky and promising “to do everything that you need”. Meanwhile, the young victim is coerced into agreeing to the strip search when he theatens her with jail if she doesn’t comply, even going so far to persuade her to be “a good actress” to make the other staff feel more comfortable.
Ann Dowd gives a fantastic performance as the sad, weak and compliant Sandra. We can see the confusion and fear in her eyes, while still trying to exert her own authority on her young, largely apathetic workforce and keep them on side. In a society where we are told to respect our peers, Sandra believes she isn’t doing anything wrong; quite the opposite in fact, in her mind she’s doing what anyone else would do under similiar circumstances.
Zobel also draws strong performances from Dreama Walker as the terrified Becky who, like Franz Kafka’s K in The Trial is overwhelmed by circumstances of which she has no knowledge, and Bill Camp as Sandra’s acquiescent and eager-to-please boyfriend Van, who comes to realise he “did a bad thing” way too late.
Compliance, without resorting to histrionics or lectures, raises serious and worrying questions about the ease in which we can do horrible things with the best of intentions, the power of intimidation and our willingness to let someone else be the victim if it means we avoid trouble ourselves.
When the die is cast and the players believe they understand the rules, Zobel’s challenging and uncomfortable film leaves us to wonder just how long we’d be willing to let the game go on.