“Compliance,” director Craig Zobel’s second film, will unsurprisingly be a magnet for viewer damning. But this gradually horrifying film should also provoke viewer self-reflection regarding one’s place in the fear-ridden and acceptably authoritarian nation America has become.
Sandra (Ann Dowd) manages a Chickwich sandwich franchise. On a supremely stressful Friday, she receives a phone call from an Officer Daniels (Pat Healy). Becky (Dreama Walker), one of the Chickwich cashiers, has allegedly stolen money from a customer’s purse. When Sandra is asked to detain Becky until the police arrive, the manager’s willingness to aid the man on the phone sets off an increasingly grueling series of events.
It has been over 50 years since Stanley Milgram conducted his famous experiment in inflicting pain on command. 45 years have also passed since Ron Jones’ Third Wave project turned about 200 Palo Alto high school students into proto-fascists. Zobel’s film shows the passage of decades has not made Americans any wiser regarding the limits of obeying authority. By literally taking his examination of the subject out of academia and into a fast food restaurant in suburban Ohio, Zobel links Milgram’s and Jones’ experiments to the land of color-coded terror alerts.
The film’s opening words “Inspired by True Events” are presented in an in-your-face manner reminiscent of the warning before “I Stand Alone”’s finale. Yet unlike Gasper Noe’s controversial debut, Zobel doesn’t want viewers to approach his film as only aspiring to shock audiences. The banality of images of snowed-on suburban streets and customers blithely eating their fast food sandwiches provides a visual counterpoint to the abuse of authority happening in Sandra’s office.
Zobel’s film falls squarely on the art side of the art/exploitation divide. Exploitative directors would have used the dramatic setup to turn Becky’s ordeal into entertainment. “Compliance,” by contrast, supplies enough visual detail and suggestion for the viewer to understand how Becky’s being humiliated. Walker deserves commendation for taking on the professionally difficult role of Becky for her film debut. Zobel earns praise for respecting Walker’s trust onscreen.
Right-wing commentators who damn “Compliance” for encouraging defiance of the police and other authority figures miss the point of Zobel’s film. “Compliance” challenges the viewer to define their boundaries regarding obeying authority figures. When does the obedience that emergency situations may call for morph into destructive blind obedience?
Sandra may rationalize her actions as displaying altruism because she’s helping an officer of the law with a problem. Yet there are indications her cooperation is motivated by personal emotional needs rather than the obligations of being deputized. Her fears of incurring her superiors’ displeasure have already been stoked by her ultimate responsibility for an expensive food spoilage and the critical visit of the secret shopper. Aiding Officer Daniels as much as possible provides both unconscious atonement and emotional approval.
Unconscious resentment of Becky also helps Sandra not be disturbed by what befalls the young cashier. Not only is Becky younger and prettier than her manager, but the young woman has a friendlier relationship with Sandra’s contemporary Marti than with Sandra herself. One also can’t help wondering if Becky’s presence reminds the older woman that her relationship with boyfriend Van is based less on actual love than on a desire to not be alone.
“Compliance” also challenges the current American tendency to accept monstrous lies rather than deal with emotionally complicated problems. Thinking of Becky as a criminal who abused people’s trust is much easier than noting the lack of significant details in Officer Daniels’ story. How far is Sandra’s behavior from that of birthers who prefer dismissing President Obama as a Kenyan non-citizen over admitting American white majority rule is disappearing?
Astute readers will have guessed by now that “Officer Daniels” is a fraud. Yet the man’s true identity matters less than seeing what happens after the other characters treat Daniels as an authority figure. If a personal relationship with the object of an authority figure’s attentions provides a basis for resistance, does lack of a personal relationship translate to deferment to an authority figure?
One man stalked out of a “Compliance” screening loudly calling all the characters Republicans. Yet such public putdowns don’t confer any sort of viewer absolution. It doesn’t take much effort in San Francisco to find viewers who would challenge a police officer’s authority as strenuously as possible. But what of other cities in the country lacking a resistance culture? Even in San Francisco, how many people lead lives free of any authority figure whatsoever?
The other problem with the angry “Compliance” viewer’s complaint is that Zobel carefully keeps political affiliations out of his story. Little is learned about the characters’ backgrounds and beliefs except in the most general manner possible. To Zobel, a person’s willingness to accept another’s authority depends less on political ties and more on character traits. Becky’s willingness to believe Daniels is a cop comes from her desire to prove her innocence. One could try drawing parallels between Daniels and Romney through their common belief that the deference of authority can be built on an ability to fluidly lie to others. Yet that sort of deception preceded the current presidential race.
Speaking of performances, actors Ann Dowd’s and Pat Healy’s work anchor the film. Though the viewer learns about Daniels’ inner character through his body language, one senses the mixture of contempt and malicious playfulness that Healy’s character communicates. Dowd’s Sandra is no cardboard villain. What makes her character’s actions horrifying is the transformation of such human traits as helpfulness and following daily routine into devices for enabling authoritarian abuse.
“Compliance” ultimately would not qualify as a parable advocating either objectivism or anarchism. The film’s resolution doesn’t depend on either glorified selfishness or an utter rejection of others’ authority. But it would be entirely appropriate if “Compliance” screenings were accompanied by giveaways of “Question Authority” buttons.
(“Compliance” opened August 24, 2012 for one week at the Bridge Theatre (3010 Geary Boulevard, SF). “Compliance”’s official website is http://www.magpictures.com/compliance/ . For tickets, go to https://tickets.landmarktheatres.com .)