Compliance is a small film that says big things rather than one of those big films that say very little, if anything. It’s written and directed by no one you have ever heard of, and stars no one you have ever heard of (I know!; be brave!) yet takes such a rivetingly clear-eyed look at the dark truths of human behaviour and the consequences of accepting authority without question that I don’t think I will ever get it out of my mind. It’s not an easy watch, which is kind of the point, and I’m not even sure what genre it is. Psychological horror? Thriller? But it will haunt and resonate. I saw it a week ago with my husband and we are still discussing it, which, for a pair who ran out of things to say to each other years ago, is quite something. You know those couples who eat breakfast in complete silence in hotels? That’s us!
Compliance is set almost entirely in a fast-food restaurant in Ohio. ChickWich, I think it’s called. Anyway, the manager is Sandra, as played by one of the someones you’ve never heard of, Ann Dowd. Sandra is a middle-aged woman who has already had a stressy day as someone had left the fridge door open the night before, and the bacon has spoiled, and she is prepping for a busy Friday night when she takes a phone call. The call is from a man identifying himself as Officer Daniels. Officer Daniels says one of the staff has stolen money from a customer’s purse. He gives a vague description of this employee, which could be anyone, but Sandra immediately decides it is Becky (Dreama Walker, although it could have been worse; it could have been Sleepa Walker).
Becky is a pretty teenager who works on the counter. Officer Daniels says the police are stretched and can’t send anyone down personally at this time. Could Sandra take Becky to a back storeroom and search her and her belongings? Sandra does so, but, alas, this is only the beginning. As the ‘investigation’ proceeds, and Officer Daniels issues instructions over the phone, and others become involved (most notably, Sandra’s boyfriend), Becky is stripped of her dignity and subjected to one unspeakable humiliation after another. Deeply upsetting, but implausible, right? You’d hope so. You’d pray so. But this is based on a real- life incident that took place in a McDonald’s in Kentucky in 2004, along with 70 — 70! — other similar hoaxes nationwide. Should you wish to upset yourself even further, you could Google it.
Written and directed by another someone you’ve never heard of, Craig Zobel, this is a film about exploitation that never feels in the least exploitative. It feels true. It has a grainy, quasi-documentary, eavesdropping feel. And it has Dowd, who makes Sandra seem extraordinarily true, like someone you might know, as Sandra veers from initial bafflement through to getting off a little bit on her new-found power even if, on the surface, she is only concerned with doing the right thing. Of course, there is barely a moment when you don’t want to shout at the screen: ‘ASK OFFICER DANIELS TO PROVE WHO HE IS!’ and ‘HOW CAN YOU BE SO STUPID?’ but think about it: how many old people did Harold Shipman kill before someone said: ‘Hang on. What do you think you are doing?’ Because he was a doctor.
So it’s a film that reminds us of Shipman and those famous 1960s Milgram experiments and the Nazis who led Jews to the gas chambers and flicked the switch. This is a brilliant film and a brilliantly troubling film that raises all sorts of important questions. Can obeying orders be a moral defence? To what extent is obeying such orders also an expression of our darkest desires? At what point do we learn this blind devotion to authority? My husband and I are still discussing it and will, I guess, continue to do so until we go back to silent breakfasts. Do come over to say ‘hello’ should you spot us. You won’t be interrupting anything, obviously.