“Compliance” – a disturbing psychological thriller – will more than likely draw extreme reactions from its audiences. One response it probably won’t trigger is boredom. Taut and intense as well as unhurried and detached, it’s a film that, for every one of its 90 minutes, grips, fascinates and frightens.
The story starts on preposterous note and from there it gets even more absurd. The manager of a fast-food restaurant in suburban Ohio (Ann Dowd) receives a call from a man (Pat Healy) who identifies himself as a cop. He tells her that a customer has accused one of the restaurant’s employees, a cartoonishly pretty 19-year-old named Becky (Dreama Walker), of stealing money.
The officer then asks the manager to help with the investigation and to strip-search Becky. Both she and Becky put up little resistance to the caller’s requests (“I’m just trying to do my job,” they both say at different times). After they acquiesce to the initial requests, the caller’s demands become more outrageous and bizarre. At one point, Becky agrees to do jumping jacks, naked.
What’s most unnerving is that “Compliance” is based on real events that took place in a suburb of Louisville, Kentucky, in 2004. And that was not an isolated incident: about 70 similar calls (in which a police officer was impersonated) were made throughout the country in a 10-year period.
But the film is not a documentary. “The reason to make the movie is to fill in the gaps in reality,” said director Craig Zobel at a recent roundtable. “I was very scared to make this movie. If we were going to do it right, we were going to have to ask some hard questions. And the movie doesn’t work for everyone.”
A colleague and friend of mine found the movie exploitative. “The only legitimate reaction is to walk out,” he said and in fact a few people did at the screening we attended.
Watching the humiliation unfold, the kneejerk reaction is to ask: “What is wrong with these people? Why are they going along this?” Yet not only did a version of these events actually happen, repeated psychological studies have shown that, more often than not, most people will obey authority and follow instructions, even if they are asked to do something they know is wrong.
And of course the next question is: “What would I do in that situation?” Your answer to that is perhaps the best way to judge the film’s merits. If you find yourself feeling superior (“I’d never do that”), the film has missed its mark. If, however, you feel sympathy for the characters, the film succeeds.
As Walker put it at the roundtable: “Who knows what any of us would do in that situation? It’s a very primal question.”
“Compliance” opens today in Los Angeles. Filmmaker Craig Zobel and actor Pat Healy will attend shows this weekend at the Nuart Theatre.