A very busy fast food joint, somewhere in one of the unnamed towns of the USA. The manager, a middle-aged woman called Sandra, is having a really bad day: due to a screw-up by her underlings, almost $1,500 worth of bacon has been ruined, and she is now conscious of needing some extra effort to please her bosses. All of a sudden she gets a call from a cool, authoritative man who identifies himself as Officer Daniels; he claims one of her employees, a pretty twenty-something blonde called Becky working on the till, has stolen some money from a customer’s bag.
Very distressed and very busy, Sandra more or less meekly complies with every request of that man, although they are just talking on the phone. Afer all he wants her to avoid the worst – an unnecessary delay and scandal, tarnishing the reputation of the whole joint and herself as an efficient manager. First she searches Becky’s bag, then she strip-searches the girl and keeps her almost naked in the back office, under the ‘surveillance’ of several men. Becky is to be isolated, effectively imprisoned and helpless until the squad car arrives. The results of Sandra’s decisions are disastrous. Soon most of the staff are involved in demeaning, humiliating and compromising activities. How will it end?
This chilling film, written and directed by Craig Zobel, is based closely on the true story of a serial phone-prankster sociopath in the US who, for a decade, got away with a bizarre repeated hoax. His daring escalated and in 2004 he brought off his masterstroke of insidious evil. The con trick was a very sadistic demonstration of the weakness and suggestibility of human nature, more devastating than anything in the well-known Stanford and Milgram experiments (testing individuals’ response to authority in the 60s of 20th century) because real lives were wrecked.
From different optical illusions like Escher’s impossible labyrinths to unsolicited emails from rich and generous African officials who offer us a fortune for a very small favour, common sense has us hard-wired to reject the implausible. We should be able to do it in our best interest. Unfortunately sometimes we fail. Believe me, it is a movie which will drive a cruel punch to your gut far more effectively than any thriller or slasher because it will make you ask yourself: what would I do in such a situation? It is a cold, hard, shrewd film: satire with a drop of cyanide. The set and decorations match that : filth and grease set the scene for human sliminess.
What Compliance shows, however, is how very important it is that “Officer Daniels” targets a fast food chain. A fast food joint is a place to lower your guard as well as your standards. Here is where the real degradation can flourish because a chain is always conscious of a menacing corporate authority somewhere above them: branch managers, regional managers, people who might only reveal themselves as a voice on the phone. Obedience and badly suppressed fear are the order of the day, especially on the unthinkable subject of hurting your milking cow, a customer. Relinquishing your free will and simply going with the flow is part of the process for all concerned. So when some brazen authority figure on the phone knocks everyone with some new situation, submitting is the natural way to react. Your inner voice might nag you, suggesting that something is very wrong and yet at any time, in any period, when people supposedly in authority tell us what to do – more often than not we do it. Without thinking about the consequences. Without thinking at all.
A competently crafted film, telling a very chilly story – undoubtedly one of the toughest sits of the movie year 2012. Still sometimes it is good to be reminded how we are programmed to do things that go against our natural instincts as long as we believe we have the law on our side.