There are still people out there who are sending their savings to Nigeria. So for every jaw-dropping “How could they BE so gullible?” moment of the thriller “Compliance,” there’s justification. We are that gullible.
And that “inspired by true events” opening credit? Yeah, this really happened. More than once. Look up “strip search” on the Urban Legend debunking website Snopes.com, and there it is.
“Compliance” is a thriller that permits you to stay two or three steps ahead of it. It’s a film that makes you yell at the screen, to shout “Come ON” at many a moment that seems to defy credulity.
But “credulity” is the name of the game, here. We’re all too willing to set aside our skepticism and common sense when someone identifying himself as an authority figure insists on it — even if he’s just barking orders over a telephone.
Sandra (the terrific Ann Dowd) is a bit overwhelmed running a rural Chick-wich fast food franchise. Her staff, “the kids,” are screw ups. We meet her as she’s getting yelled at by a supplier because she’s trying to cover up that – the kids left the food locker opened and a lot of food spoiled.
The nametags who work for her don’t hold her in high regard. But still, she’s older and she’s the boss. In a brief scene or two, writer/director Craig Zobel sketches in the employees — pretty, serial-dating Becky (Dreama Walker), Kevin, who has a crush on her (Philip Ettinger), the older Marti (Ashli Atkinson), who has her own sort of crush, living vicariously through Becky’s exploits.
Sandra’s newly engaged. It’s Friday night, the busiest night of the week. Sandra’s worried over a “secret shopper,” somebody from corporate who is due to show up and evaluate her staff and her work. And then the phone rings.
He says he’s a police officer. He says there’s been a theft. He says he and his team are investigating “a ring” of criminal activity whose members include one of her staff. Say what?
“I’m going to need for you to address me as ‘sir’ or ‘officer,'” he snaps.
And we’re off, hurtling into a working class nightmare that is by equal measures maddening, alarming, titillating and shocking. “Officer Daniels” stays on the phone. He keeps promising “We’ll be there soon.” He builds trust, alternately insulting and complimenting first Sandra, then others who get on the phone after her.
Instantly, Becky is under suspicion. Within minutes, Sandra, the low-level management drone with a passing knowledge of company proceedure and “compliance,” is accusing the girl, searching the girl and, as Officer Daniels listens — strip searching a 19 year-old in the employee’s break room of a fast food franchise.
Sandra and the other older characters brought into this situation may express doubts. But they’ve gotten used to taking orders. Kevin is still young enough to question authority. So is Becky. But shock makes her protests feeble. Walker gets across Becky’s powerlessness and becomes exactly what the film’s title implies, compliant.
“Don’t make me do this. This is crazy.”
Which is how most of us will react to this film. How could these people fall for this? Even before we see the caller (very early on), we’ve realized “This isn’t the way they do it on ‘Law & Order.’ No cop would do any of this over the phone.” The game is up.
But “Compliance” isn[‘t about the game. It’s about the psychology of compliance, our foolish willingness to follow orders, to ignore both common sense and common decency.
Zobel, who gave us the record producer con-man comedy “Great World of Sound,” isn’t as good at creating the “We’re slammed” sense of a fast food joint running at high speed, racheting up the stress on staff and manager. That contributes to a maddening lack of tension, without which the behavior of characters seems harder to justify. And the slack pacing gives the viewer too many chances to shout “Are you KIDDING me?” at the screen.
But if you’ve made a movie that makes people want to do that sort of shouting, you’ve already won the battle. We’ve become just as compliant as everybody else.
MPAA Rating: R for language and sexual content/nudity
Cast: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Philip Etinger, Bill Camp, Pat Healy.
Credits: Writen and directed by Craig Zobel. A Magnolia release .
Running time: 1:29