By common consent, Compliance is “disturbing”. Some have said that it is “the most disturbing movie ever made”.

Certainly, the movie has evoked disgust and outrage. At the Sundance Film Festival in 2012 one audience member accused the film of trying to make violence against women “entertaining” before angrily vacating the premises, along with several others. This critic was clearly disturbed by the alleged motives of the movie’s creators. But do disturbing motives make a disturbing movie? Consider a parallel. The teller of a lame joke wishes to provoke laughter. But he fails. The joke isn’t funny. There is a radical mismatch between motive and result. So what is the result of this movie and how was this result achieved? Has this result been appreciated adequately by critical opinion? If not, why not? For the record, I believe that this movie is disturbing but not for the reasons outlined in the reviews I have read so far.

The viewer is introduced to the scene of the action, a frowsy junk food franchise embedded in a snowbound lower middle class suburb somewhere in the Midwest. It could be any of a million places. Teenagers Kevin and Becky are unenthusiastic spear carriers at ChickWich. Becky is late and parks her car in a customer space. Kevin points out that she is failing to comply with corporate standing orders. Becky doesn’t care. Why should she?

Sandra, the manageress, is unhappy. Some bacon and pickles have spoiled because someone had failed to shut the freezer. And now she is in a slanging match with a ChickWich driver because he has been inconvenienced by Sandra’s failure to comply with corporate policy on deliveries. Authority expects compliance with a complex set of protocols. But these protocols are challenged. The main actors are not mere robots. Desire and exigency provoke non-compliance. Isn’t this how most people behave in the face of petty authority? The viewer is invited to side with the non-complier.

Sandra chivvies her staff into compliance with ChickWich’s corporate policies. It is a busy Friday and Sandra would have her underlings believe that the restaurant may host a corporate “secret shopper” on the lookout for non-compliance. In other words, Sandra’s ChickWich is your common or parking lot industrial relations hell. Only late in the movie is the audience made aware of the existence of a standard issue video surveillance rig. Someone is potentially interest of every move made by the people who pass through this space. What will make some of these people do bad things?

“Officer Daniels” proves himself capable of malign manipulation. He has an authoritative phone presence. He ought to because he makes a living manipulating people doing his day job at a call centre. The movie portrays tellingly “Daniels'” canny use of threat and flattery. At what point would you or I baulk at his requests and orders? Having at once complied, what are the sunk costs of refusing? Subtly and without histrionic, the movie traces the breaking point of each character.

Sandra, no oil painting, has most to lose. The wrong side of forty, single, uncool, insecure, she may finally have found a man. Evan is a bloke with modest expectations, who ickily sexts Sandra, and seeks her permission to enjoy a beer with the boys. Sandra would prefer him badder. Evan shouldn’t have to ask Sandra’s permission. But he does. He seeks to comply. In a throwaway line it is clear that Evan will be the greatest sufferer in the aftermath of the hoax.

Friday night in a bustling fast-food joint and Sandra (Ann Dowd), a frumpy manageress whose day is going from bad to worse, receives a phone call from a man claiming to be a policeman. “Officer Daniels”, played with sinister charm by Pat Healy, tells Sandra that one of her young employees, Becky (Dreama Walker) has been accused of stealing and must be questioned until the police arrive. Sandra, fearful of being uncooperative, duly complies. Panic-stricken Becky, worried that she will lose her job, does too.

The abhorrent events that follow ought to be unbelievable, but a clever, torturously slow script makes them less so. Becky is strip-searched and Sandra is persuaded to leave her, naked but for a flimsy apron, in the hands of several men, including Sandra’s own fiancé. At the behest of the caller, the men subject her to increasingly humiliating acts until one final, terrible moment of submission.

The hoax unleashes a judicial process that will break butterflies upon wheels. These prosecutions are only sketchily referenced. The audience, fatigued by the action of the movie, may miss these references. Yet the future is clear. The engine of state compliance will be relentless and brutal. This is the ultimate engine of compliance, hovering above and supplementing all other authority structures. The truth is sobering. Many citizens do not know how to resist.

The actual hoax happened in Kentucky in 2004. It was captured on CCTV footage, so we know that the film is largely faithful to it. It’s a powerful look at the psychology of obedience that recalls both the Holocaust and the controversial Milgram experiment, in which subjects were persuaded to administer what they believed to be near fatal electric shocks to their peers, under the supervision of scientists. Did the real “Officer Daniels” study the Milgram experiment? Has nature imitated artifice?

The movie depicts these events without affect. The movie feels much like CCTV footage spliced together. The artifice of the movie is its replication of absence of artifice. This method transgresses much of the Hollywood grammar of narrative and manufacture of empathy. The audience is thus transported to an unfamiliar place that looks too much like their own neighbourhood.

There’s no doubt that it makes for uncomfortable viewing, however people’s hostility, says Director Zobel, is because they don’t believe such things could really have happened. “But they did. The question I hope the film poses is why.”
So why? Some have accused the film of being exploitative, but in fact the camera shies away from Becky’s nudity, focusing instead on the phone, and the reactions of those on it, on Sandra in particular. Without her easy acquiescence would any of it have happened? Does she envy Becky? Is she a victim or a perpetrator?

“The part for me that’s fascinating is how does it happen beat by beat,” says Zobel, who adds that he empathised with every character. “The instinct is to distance yourself from that kind of behaviour, to say, ‘I would never do that.’ But people that say that leave themselves more open. I’m not saying I’m doing a public service but… it’s important that we talk about this stuff.”

Sandra is both the scapegoat and the villain of the piece, but no one comes away unscathed. Indeed, the only dissenter is someone who has never had much respect for authority.

The most disturbing aspect of Compliance is its implied complicity. What would you do?


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