Compliance (2012)

Director/Screenwriter: Craig Zobel

By Roderick Heath

Germany, 1906: Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt, a lifelong drifter and petty criminal, hatched a con to dress up as a military officer. In uniform, he was able to order soldiers in the street to aid him in taking control of a suburban city hall outside Berlin, arrest the mayor and other officials, and confiscate a large sum of money, before sneaking away and changing back into civilian garb. He was caught soon after, but “the Captain of Köpenick,” as he was dubbed, remains a folk hero in Germany, the subject of a much-loved book and films. His escapade was the sort that brings a wry smile to the lips of everyone except the sorts of pompous poltroons Voigt took advantage of, but his tale is also often regarded as signifying the depth of blind obedience to authority present in German society in that age, an obedience that would eventually have infinitely less amusing ramifications.

So what exactly should one make of the society in which Compliance takes place? Compliance is based on an incident that took place in Mount Washington, Kentucky in 2004, the last in a string of more than 70 prank phone calls that involved the same modus operandi. Craig Zobel’s film of the incident lightly fictionalises some details, like changing the fast food venue from McDonald’s to an imagined franchise, “ChickWich,” but otherwise follows the outlines of the case with scrupulous care that only makes the outrageousness of it all the more astounding. Compliance touches upon many a hot-button issue, but it is essentially a portrait of the ease with which people surrender to base instincts in the face of fear and opportunity. Compliance is about ordinary life turning into a hellish ordeal; it’s like a Wes Craven film without knife murders.

The film begins in the most humdrum circumstances imaginable. Middle-aged restaurant manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) contends with a supplier (Matt Servitto) after somebody left a freezer open overnight, ruining much of the restaurant’s vital ingredients. Workaday tensions percolate after Sandra’s altercation with the irritable supplier: news that a secret franchise inspector might be in the store later in the day puts her nerves on edge. Her employees are the usual roster of half-interested youths, including Becky (Dreama Walker), the goggle-eyed, pretty blonde with a number of boyfriends. The contrast between harried, anxious Sandra and blithe young Becky is underlined as Sandra awkwardly tries to chat up her long-time boyfriend, construction worker Van (Bill Camp), into finally proposing marriage. Becky shows off pictures of one of her hot beaus to Sandra’s deputy Marti (Ashlie Atkinson), and Sandra tries to be hip in wielding the phrase “sexting.” Early in the restaurant’s busy evening shift, Sandra receives a phone call from a man calling himself Officer Daniels: when he asks questions about a “young blonde” employee out front, Sandra immediately assumes he means Becky. Daniels explains that he has a witness on hand claiming that Becky stole money from her purse whilst being served. Sandra calls Becky back into her office and relays Daniels’ accusations before handing the phone over to the girl, who protests her innocence. Daniels aggressively browbeats Becky before asking Sandra to keep Becky at bay in her office. He then asks her and Marti to search Becky’s purse and pockets, and when nothing is found, to get her to strip down to confirm she’s not hiding the money in her clothes or on her body.

Becky’s subsequent degradation is slow and unrelenting, but Zobel and Walker try to avoid making her too much the human equivalent of a small, furry animal being abused. Her eye-rolling, self-involved, faintly impudent quality in contending with Sandra before the fateful call commences signals her as a typical teen, neither saintly nor particularly smart, but also far from inviting, either directly or incidentally, the kind of treatment she is now subjected to. Compliance’s intense structure resembles for much of its length a one-act play translated to film, the claustrophobic setting rarely diverting from Sandra’s office-cum-storeroom and a neighbouring storeroom where Sandra briefs and confronts co-workers when it becomes necessary. Zobel avoids staginess and the tone of an actor’s exercise with surprising dexterity, partly because the drama follows a relentless, fact-derived logic, and partly by how Zobel exploits the cramped setting. The world beyond the confines of the office and the storage space quickly starts to feel unreal: the busy counter and the shop beyond where the fast-food customers mill and eat cheerily swiftly become another world, a zone of normality only a few feet away that nonetheless becomes painfully out of reach for Becky. The few moves outside of the building, as when Sandra obeys Daniels’ odd command to wrap up Becky’s belongings in a bag and deposit them in her own car so other policemen can come and discreetly search them, are almost disorienting.

As Compliance spirals into ugly places, it is revealed that “Officer Daniels” is actually a middle-aged, middle-class man (Pat Healy) first glimpsed briefly towards the beginning making phone calls from a public phone, barking strange declarations of “Sir!” into the handpiece. Later, making the call to the restaurant from his own, eminently prosperous-looking house, he carefully writes down every detail he extracts from the ChickWich employees and those he invents himself to facilitate his actual purpose, which is to revel in the power he can wield over others and the fancies he can indulge by proxy. A huge photo of an orbiting space shuttle festoons the wall of his home office, a wry visualisation of his belief in his distant, unassailable remoteness from the consequences of what he’s doing. Zobel avoids cutting to the imposter until Sandra hands the phone over to a man—Becky’s coworker and friend Kevin (Philip Ettinger)—and with the hope of a masculine proxy, “Daniels’” intent to inflict sexual humiliation on Becky begins in earnest. The charge of unease as Kevin is ushered in to watch over Becky is immediate and palpable, Kevin stricken immediately by a queasy mixture of distaste and temptation, as Becky is, for most of the remainder of the film, reduced to wearing only an apron Marti gives her. Once Sandra and Marti are absent, “Daniels” starts insisting that Kevin needs to make a body cavity search on Becky, something Kevin baulks at, and he angrily insists to Sandra that he wants nothing more to do with the situation. The vicissitudes of commerce constantly drag attention away from the matter at hand: Sandra occasionally has to man the counter herself to make up for the shortfall of staff, as the crisis unfolds on a “good night for us.”

Compliance is a film about the many manifestations of fear on an immediate social level, but which have resonances to a macrocosmic scale. Zobel’s camera roams around the seamy backside of the fast-food establishment to pick out shots of grimy grills crusted in the detritus of cooking and labouring day in and day out, and familiar setting in a suburban town centre, with cheerless, dirty cement caked with wintry slush and refuse. This helps Zobel emphasise a sense of utilitarian decline and the wearying grottiness clinging to the world these people inhabit. Anxiety is a background drone for the characters: the worry of aging without love or unemployment, the threat of authority, disapproval, and the oppression of larger forces hovering around the younger characters who undoubtedly want to move on from food service and, of course, never expect to finish up as people like Sandra, but who also need the jobs they have. Becky, asked late in the film why she gave in and submitted to a strip-search, replies that sooner or later, she expected she would have to do it, and so chose sooner, underlining the insidious nature of the forms of power “Daniels” evokes. Becky’s uncertainty of her rights, her naivete and her unformed capacity to protest, contribute to her unfortunate situation and render her vulnerable in a profound fashion. “Officer Daniels” carefully worms his way into the psyche of his targets not only by exploiting their anxieties, but also by stroking their egos and giving them a chance to live out some of their own fantasies. He carefully taps into Sandra’s need to feel competent and in command, and bullies Becky into obedience by fierce challenges to explain why someone has identified her as a criminal. Kevin desists when “Daniels” begins prodding him to search Becky again, but he insists that he wants nothing to do with the cops when they come.

As “Daniels”’ badgering becomes more intensive, he carefully, cleverly manipulates the workers into making assumptions and then to fill in the blanks of his story, a tactic sustained from his very first enquiry, where he mentioned a young blonde. Sandra immediately gives him exactly what he wants, a name to attach to the phantom thief. Later, he uses Becky’s revelation of a brush her brother once had with the law as the basis for building a new dimension to his fake investigation. He tells Sandra that he really wants to use the excuse of the supposed theft to give him and other police officers a chance to search Becky’s family house for evidence of a drug-selling operation that her brother runs and that Becky seems to be involved in. Whilst Zobel’s technique is ultimately very different, there’s an almost Hitchcockian logic to the way the inference of guilt, commingled with private susceptibility, takes on a life of its own. Sandra’s immediate surrender to the spectre of authority, through the simultaneous fear of looking weak and the promise “Daniels” dangles before her of gaining respect and power for herself, quickly sees supposition turned into fact: as she needs people to bring into her confidence, she quickly gives up any pretence to upholding Becky’s innocence, saying “Becky stole some money.”

After failing to get Kevin to become his tool, “Daniels” gains a more malleable substitute, as he convinces Sandra to call in Van to watch Becky and ease the staffing shortfall. Van, who’s been hanging with pals after work, is a little drunk, and with some cajoling, proves a perfect conduit for “Daniels’” efforts. “Daniels” twists the fascination with the infliction of power over others, which he restrained with Sandra, to now tap into every fantasy of bullying a young woman into sexual compliance, complete with getting Van to smack her in punishment for speaking discourteously to Sandra, and finally climaxing in convincing Van to force Becky to give him a blowjob. That “Daniels” exploits the subliminal wish of Van to assert erotic force over Becky is obvious; more subtle, but part of the same matrix, is Sandra’s dislike of Becky as a younger female and her unease over Van’s wayward affections, charging the vital scene in which Sandra first interrupts Van and Becky after “Daniels” has gotten Van to force Becky to show him her breasts and then do jumping jacks ostensibly to dislodge any hidden money. Sandra senses the disquiet between the pair after this, and it seems to actualise Sandra’s deep anxieties. She ignores Becky’s pleadings for help: “Why are you talking to me?” Sandra demands in return in her moment of fiercest irritation, paving the way for the situation to reach its nadir. Van reels out of the restaurant in a state of shock, phoning a friend to tell him, “I just did something really bad!”

Fittingly enough, but also frighteningly, “Daniels’” subterfuge only ends when Sandra asks an elderly, sometime employee, Harold (Stephen Payne) who stops in for a snack, to take Van’s place after he runs off. When “Daniels” tries to repeat his coup, Earl recoils, protesting with righteous, old-fashioned indignation, and he sounds off to Sandra. This pushback finally causes Sandra to double-check with a superior, who’s supposedly been in constant contact with “Daniels,” and the prank finally unravels. Compliance changes gear as the real forces of law are called into action: Zobel presents a single shot in which Detective Neals (James McCaffrey) leaves the police station and drives to the ChickWich, a journey that takes about a minute. The targets of shame and humiliation now partly invert, as Neals solicitously escorts Becky away, and then commences an investigation in which he and other policemen establish that this is one of a spate of similar incidents. The police finally track down “Daniels,” who turns out to be an insurance salesman with a young daughter.

Compliance is certainly a film pitched to generate powerful emotions in its audience, and by all reports has succeeded in provoking disbelief and rejection in spite of its apparent general veracity. Some American critics normally eager to embrace much more appalling visions of social degradation in films from other countries have turned their noses up at it. Compliance is certainly a joyless experience, but it is a worthy one insofar as it captures an unpleasant but genuine aspect of the modern zeitgeist. The situation it depicts testifies to some long-troubling social phenomena, particularly the vulnerability of young people—and young women in particular—and the willingness of many to kowtow to anyone who sounds like they know what they’re talking about. But there are also less ethereal forces apparent in the film. For my part, I found it hard to ignore the feeling that the scenes depicted in Compliance are partly the result of 30+ years of assaults on movements for personal liberty and empowerment through a petty, street-level fascism hidden under the guise of a fashionable piece of reactionary authoritarianism, be it the Wars on Drugs through to the Wars on Terror. “Daniels” synthesises a perfect nexus of forces that leverage his essential delight in power. The faintest suggestion that Becky is involved in theft and, more particularly, drugs, is enough to convince people to do the most immoral things to her because that’s what young people are like.

“Daniels” puts over his misogynistic authoritarianism with chilling ease because it’s a feeling shared by too many, the notion that sexually active young women like Becky deserve punishment, and should be returned to a position of obeisant intimidation. Compliance essentially depicts a modern-day witch trial. Even Becky herself gives into this force. Certainly “Daniels” operates according to a need to be in control, a figure of power and respect who wields a mixture of popular clichés of police work and purely Pavlovian stimuli, and utilising technology and personal gifts to achieve what he would presumably never have the guts to do in person. As a work of social alarmism and a recreation of a seemingly impossible situation peppered with detail to make it coherent and persuasive, Compliance does its job well, and it manages to say something unusual and worrying. Aesthetically, it’s mostly blunt and efficient, though this is, to a certain extent, part of its strength. Some decisions and elisions that seem made for apparently good reasons ultimately sap it of some potential, like skipping the actual moment in which an excruciating situation becomes a sex crime, thus relieving Zobel of the hardest part of his job even if it does skirt potential exploitation, where I felt a nervier, more sustained neurotic mood was needed.

The focus purely on the situational nightmare leaves holes of assumption where there should be a sense of virulent offence and identification. Zobel barely characterises anyone beyond essentials, and some of the peripheral figures remain stuck in functional postures, including Van, whose blue-collar flaccidness is signalled with a bullhorn, and others, like Becky’s black coworker Connie (Nikiya Mathis), tread close to stereotype. Zobel is also guilty of laying out the specificities of his characters’ concerns rather too blatantly, from Becky’s fear of being fired and Sandra’s feelings of harassment. The threat of the visiting inspector is a particularly overripe touch that could have come from any number of workplace comedies, and the soundtrack by Heather McIntosh works too hard to generate a mood of dreadful anticipation. Indie stalwart Dowd’s performance as Sandra is the film’s centrepiece, offering both minatory humour and pathos in her attempts to play the expert manager and delivering crucial epiphanies with subtlety. Walker is entirely effective as the victim of all this, sometimes vivid in her pathos, sometimes disappearing as she’s rendered a nonperson by those around her. Healy’s performance as the imposter is admirable, in that he sustains the movie’s drama largely by vocal intonation, particularly when he’s scrambling to cover up his mistakes or press home his advantages with ruthless instinct, but also it is a little affected as a fey creep who clearly signals his lack of traditional masculine heft as a reason for his behaviour. In short, he’s a pretty stock bad guy, and it takes some of the charge out of the film’s essential thesis, not that bad things are usually caused by abnormal people, but rather by normal people given a moment’s encouragement by abnormal circumstances. Zobel’s simplicity of intent robs the imposter of some of the potential force he could have wielded, and made Compliance more than a gripping, but finally only a solid piece of social muckraking.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/11/2012 to 7:16 pm

    Of course, this incident confirms what researchers from Milgram on have found: “Many point to the lessons of the Holocaust and argue that there is greater societal awareness of the dangers of blind obedience. But what I found is the same situational factors that affected obedience in Milgram’s experiments still operate today.”

    There certainly is the added incentive in this case of misogyny, envy, and sociopathy, but the predisposition to obey authority seems inherent. We can all be shocked by this and other films that show depravity of groupthink. I only wish seeing a film like this would truly change our behavior.

    Excellent review, as usual, Rod.

  • Roderick spoke:
    4th/11/2012 to 8:10 pm

    Hi Mare.

    For me, an aspect of the drama which has grown stronger in my mind since writing this review is how, although everything takes place in a seemingly starkly “real” environment, it evokes so much that is “unreal”, that is the pervasiveness of entertainment exploiting our taste for inflicting punishment and judgmentalism which informs the actions and reactions of the characters. Daniels wields a carefully crafted line of patter that seems convincing enough to be on the level and which wields a precise roster of elements to make the characters around Becky to presume she somehow deserves her treatment. Particularly vital are the magic words “stole” and “drugs”, the latter above all, the great shibboleth of modern authoritarianism. These words place these ordinary people in a zone of psychological credulity informed by a lifetime of being pumped full of messages through the media – indeed one possible weakness, or at least missed opportunity, of this film is to coherently describe this supernal yet psychologically important element. Daniels’ speech and the characters’ reactions have all been ingrained by a lifetime of watching cop shows. It seemingly goes well beyond that by the time Daniels convinces a middle-aged man to force a teenaged girl to give him a blow-job, and yet the same principal seems to be at work, except it’s moved from cop shows to porn. The drama still conforms to Daniels’ capacity to appeal to peoples’ wishes that life is a movie and allows parts of themselves long held in check to finally hold sway. This is not to say that I think this boils down to a “the movies and TV are to blame” message, but I think this story helps fill in the missing links which studies like the Milgram experiment still leave. Such experiments were successful because they relied on a lack of information on the behalf of the people engaged to do the pain induction – that part of the mind that goes, is the pain I’m causing is possibly vitally necessary to some necessary experiment? – whereas here Daniels tells his lab rats exactly why he needs and wants them to do things, constantly steering them in the way he wants them to move. Daniels succeeds is because he writes all the characters into a drama in which the script seems pre-ordained; even Becky thinks that every humiliation she receives will inflicted, be it sooner or later. Worthy of more thought, at any rate.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/11/2012 to 8:43 pm

    I know what you’re saying, Rod. I’ve seen behavior that mimicks the movies and TV because that’s how a lot of young people learn behaviors, especially today in our media-saturated world. Still, the repeat of the Milgram experiment let people stop, told them they didn’t need to keep shocking the subjects, and the “punishers” continued to offer their “help.” There seems to be something in us all – not just “Daniels'” kinks and lust for control – that wants to administer punishment, to have control over someone. It’s kind of the classic case of choosing a scapegoat to absorb all our sins, which could explain Becky’s reaction. In modern times, too, the rational has been beaten back by superstition and the irrational in many places. This sounds like almost a ritualistic catharsis. It’s horrifying and intriguing at the same time.

  • Roderick spoke:
    5th/11/2012 to 4:45 am

    Yes, “a ritualistic catharsis” is a very apt phrase. The whole process as depicted does have a ritualistic element – it’s hard not to let the mind slip back to witch trials, with many of the same undercurrents – complete with a feeling that it has to be taken to a limit, an apotheosis.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/11/2012 to 10:13 am

    Although the name “Chickwich” is very clever for a fictionalized fast-food joint, perhaps it has a double meaning.

  • Roderick spoke:
    8th/11/2012 to 9:20 am

    You could be right there, although my aversion to puns has me thinking, oh god I hope not!

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