On August 14, 2012 I moderated a Q&A after the National Board of Review screening of Compliance with director/writer Craig Zobel and actress Ann Dowd. It was a relaxed and fun conversation, moving fluidly between considerations (and implications) of the material and discussion of technical, acting and logistics. It’s a film that stays with you so I have finally gotten to write about it. I was thrilled to learn on Wednesday, December 5 that the NBR had given Ann Dowd the best supporting actress award. It was a nuanced and disturbing performance – Dowd created a character who was a “good” person drawn into orchestrating the systematic humiliation and psychological destruction of an innocent young person.
Originally published on the web site of the National Board of Review
A film by Craig Zobel
Film Review by Thomas W. Campbell
Compliance may be the most unnerving non-horror film released this year. Based on a true story, it is one of those films that truly benefits from the seemingly ubiquitous tagline. Watching it you can’t believe that the main characters would be willing to play so deeply into the hands of another person – but they did. And numerous and well-known social experiments (and historical events) have proven that people having been doing so for some time.
Compliance is the second film written and directed by Craig Zobel, who founded the successful and funny flash animated web site homestar runner in 1996 with Mike Chapman. Famously resisting offers to turn it into a television show, he directed the dry and well-acted independent comedy The Great World of Sound in 2007. Great World, which stars John Baker, Keen Holliday and Pat Healy, is a funny and slightly melancholic look at two salesmen who travel across the south peddling record deals that are ultimately bogus. Despite the obvious signs (Baker’s sleazy record executive being the most obvious) the characters played by Holliday and Healy struggle to retain their faith in the services they are peddling. Because we empathize with them we also hope that, against all odds, the dreams they are selling might somehow be real. It is a strong debut for Zobel with a theme that offers interesting parallels to his latest film.
Compliance is the story of events that were instigated by a man known as “Officer Daniels” (played with icy precision by Pat Healy). The man, who’s real name we never learn (and who never went to jail for his crimes), goes on a one-man power trip over a nine year period, making hundreds of calls to fast food restaurants while impersonating a police officer. He manages, to his obvious delight, to instigate and direct seventy strip searches of young female employees, many which led to rape, sodomy and psychological humiliation. It’s a dark tale that Zobel tells with a deft touch, which makes it all the more disturbing.
The plot takes place over a period of about 12 hours and immerses us into the hermetic world of fast food commerce from the opening moments. We meet Sandra (played with appropriate seriousness by Ann Dowd), who is arriving early for her night shift at a generic looking restaurant (many of the actual events took place in the biggest chains). Sandra already feels the pressures of her job. Before she can even get to work there is a bacon crisis that she must negotiate with a vendor. Compounding her anxiety is the fear that her “mistakes” will be reported to upper management. It’s only bacon, but like many of the events that are about to unfold, it is already being magnified through her subjective experience.
Inside the restaurant the stakes seem small to outsiders (the viewers) but there is a rapidly evolving sense that we have stepped into a closed-loop system with its own self-perpetuating set of rules. It is the ideal creation of the corporate service industry – regimented, hierarchal, the customer is always right and authority is unquestioned. The bacon issue (someone left a freezer door ajar) hangs over the employees like an event too shameful for anyone to admit to. Becky (Dreama Walker) and Kevin (Philip Ettinger), the youngest employees, still have some spark in their eyes. Becky is even overheard by Sandra as she jokes about the older woman’s lack of social media experience. But Sandra has no room for anything unrelated to the success of the restaurant. Meanwhile her chief assistant Marti (Ashlie Atkinson) seems to be transitioning from Becky and Kevin’s “naiveté” towards becoming management material.
When the first call comes in it is clear that distraction and guilt are two of the weapons that the caller uses against his victims. Sandra takes the phone and becomes immediately rapt when she realizes that a police officer is on the other line. Still reeling from the “crisis” represented by the spoiled bacon – and the fact that she has yet to explain the event to her own manager – she is focused and submissive. Seen objectively it is possible to decipher the techniques of the caller. He knows the name of her manager but is unclear about where the police station is, for instance. He talks generally about a “young girl who works for you behind the counter”, and quickly agrees that it is “Becky” when told that someone with that name works in the restaurant. Zobel has done all of his homework and, with an ability to elicit natural performances from his cast, has made us implicit from the moment that Sandra begins to follow the orders of the man who demonstrates such decisive authority to her. And this is one reason, I think, that at the Sundance premiere many audience members were openly hostile during the Q and A that followed. We want to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that we (or our friends and family) would never follow orders in such obviously mindless and (by all objective standards) deviant ways.
But there is too much evidence to suggest otherwise. In 1961 the Yale/Milgram experiments on obedience to authority figures strongly suggested, as did the 1971 Stanford prison experiments (in which a prison simulation rapidly turned to chaos, with “authority figures” improvised increasingly violent punishments for the “prisoners”). Milgram was the well-known laboratory study in which a person was supposedly hooked up to electrical cables in an unseen room. The results were pretty conclusive – despite knowing the likely result of the largest administered shock (450 volts) could be death, and despite the pleas to stop from the next room, 65 percent of the 40 volunteers allowed themselves to be prodded by the scientist (authority figure) in the room to continue shocking the subject until they reached the maximum voltage.
Healy captures the demented abilities of the caller with language, body gestures, and with the use of a clear voice that is at once confident building and disarming. In the Milgram experiments simple verbal prods were used to push the subjects on, increasing the authoritative demands in steady measures. If the subjects wished to stop they were given increasingly explicits commands, culminating with “You have no other choice, you must go on.” Most went on.
The degree to which the anonymous caller was successful over a nine year period is shocking. What happens to Becky, brought to life in a brave and demanding performance by Ms. Walker, makes it seem like something evil has taken over. As the crimes accumulate we wait for someone to realize that they have the power to simply say stop. But instead it goes on. Nobody within the closed-loop of orders that circulate from the voice on the phone dares to question. Sandra is too absorbed by her place in the structure of the restaurant to consider the implications of what she is being told to do. Her husband (Bill Camp), is only following orders when left alone with a naked teenager and a man on the phone who he is told is a policeman. He does things that he could never have imagined were legal (or moral). He does not seem like a bad man, but he is helpless within the spell that has been cast around him.
There is a creepiness to the story that gets under the skin – the sickening abuse of an innocent person is never easy to experience. And when the suffering is so easily directed by an anonymous voice, authoritative or otherwise, we all seem vulnerable. Compliance engages us with “unbelievable” events that are ultimately made quite believable. We are left to wonder, as we grapple with our anger and denial, what our own actions might look like under similar circumstances. Zobel has made a film that for all of its immersion into the evil of psychological, emotional and physical manipulation is also a well-intentioned call to common sense. Question authority.