Back in 2004, a Kentucky McDonalds received a call from a policeman who informed the manager that one of her employees had possibly committed a theft. This led to a multi-hour chain of events which, though it had happened (to some extent) some 70 times before, was and remains wholly unbelievable. At the instruction of this officer-on-the-phone, the employee was detained in a back room for hours, strip searched, given a spanking, sexually molested and forced to perform oral sex. It’s a story that defies logic and common sense, which is what makes it ripe for a film. If a movie can really dig in and try to unpack the psychology behind this story, giving the viewer an intimate understanding of and empathy for what was going through the store employees’ minds, it could be stunning. Chilling and horrific, and possibly controversial, but stunning.
Compliance hopes to be that film. The movie begins with a few scenes introducing us to the folks who are working at the fictional ChickWich on the day of these events and, aside from offering a fantastic quote that I want on a shirt (“you’re f*cked without bacon, I’ll tell you that”), the scenes are pretty rote. We learn that the store manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) is nice but out of touch. We’re introduced to Becky (Dreama Walker), the girl who’s about to have her day ruined, and all we really learn about is that she’s a pretty blonde. Her friend Marti (Ashlie Atkinson) we learn is plucky. And Kevin (Philip Ettinger), who I think is schtupping Becky, is your typical kinda-don’t-give-a-sh*t teen. The scenes move along fluidly and pleasantly enough until Sandra takes a call from “Officer Daniels” (Pat Healy), and this is when Becky’s day goes pear shaped.
Most the rest of the film tracks what I told you in the introductory paragraph, which is itself just a shortened summary of the six Wikipedia paragraphs discussing the incident. The film stays fairly close to what actually happend in Kentucky and, as the events unfold, you can see writer/director Craig Zobel really trying to show us how this could happen. Zobel says that the origin of the movie was his fascination with the Milgram experiment, which was an ethical experiment, devised in the 60s, wherein folks would give what they believed were increasing levels of high-voltage shocks to others who failed a basic word test, cajolled by supposed authority figures even when the voltage hit lethal levels. It’s a fascinating look at the intersection and interplay of ethics, authority and common sense, and coming to the Compliance story from that perspective is absolutely the right approach. Unfortunately, although you can see Zobel trying to shed light on the psychological underpinnings of this horror, he fails to pull it off.
The film does hit this target in the early going. Daniels demands authoritative respect from Becky (“call me ‘sir’ or ‘officer’”) while also threatening greater harm to herself and her brother (who Daniels claims is under a larger investigation), and you can see why she might agree to being detained in the storage room. And Daniels befriends Sandra, preys on her trust and compassion, and takes away her feeling of culpability (telling her repeatedly that he has “to take full responsibility”) such that you can kinda-sorta understand why she would agree to conduct a strip search. But as the events escalate in their incredulity, Compliance doesn’t take us any further down the psychological rabbit hole. The characters’ willingness to go along simply becomes harder to swallow and, even if you know that the film is based on and hewing to the actual events, it’s mockably unbelievable. The guy sitting next to me in the theater succinctly summarized this failing of the film with his loud uttering of an incredulous “what?!” no less than six times. He was by no means the only one who found things increasingly hard to swallow.
The biggest misstep the film makes is to show us Officer Daniels, frequently and repeatedly cutting away from the store to the man who’s sitting at home, on the phone, pretending to be a cop. This serves to take us out of the moment, when we’re supposed be getting deeper into the minds of Becky, Sandra and the other perpetrators and victims. Rather than jumping away and thereby cutting whatever tension and drama has been building up, the movie should have narrowed its focus, not just staying within the ChickWich, but spending an hour and a half solely in that back store room. We need to experience the authority and verbal hypnosis of Officer Daniel’s disconnected voice and, more importantly, we need to feel the increasing claustrophobia and unease that Becky feels. Compliance wants to be a psychological horror film, but it shies away from fully committing to the path it needs to follow. Maybe it’s because Zobel is so green (this is only his second feature) that he was unwilling to do, this but rather than making it as dark and uncomfortable as it needs to be, we instead get awkward and cheap cutaways, like a ridiculously drummed-up moment with a calling card about to run out and a childish cut during a sexual scene. These are laughable moments that wholly undermine the movie’s aims.
But where the movie fails to take us into the dark psychology, at least it manages to be dreadfully dull. This is no fault of the cast, as Walker is a strong lead who remains compelling to watch as she emotionally crumbles. Although the script fails to sell the character motivations, Walker, Dowd and the others do the best they can to sell it and rope us in. But because the film doesn’t really get the viewer to that level of darkness and understanding that we need, it plays. very. slowly. There are a few scenes that are legitimately tense, and some of the events are certainly uncomfortable (while Zobel properly walks the line of not showing more than is necessary, there were still a number of walkouts). But when I should have been terrified and engrossed, I was generally bored and anxious for the movie to end already.
Had Compliance done what it intended, we would understand exactly why this awful day unfolded as it did. Instead, the viewer spends an hour and a half wondering why the hell nobody had the good sense to just hang up the f*ing phone.
Compliance screened at South by Southwest 2012. I rather wish somebody had called me before the screening and ordered me not to attend.