I didn't see "Compliance" when it was in theaters because I hadn't heard anything about it and the poster made it look like an exploitation horror film. Well, it is a horror film about exploitation, in a sense, but the poster is probably more evident of a distributor unsure of how to sell a movie about a fast food restaurant where a prank call leads to humiliation and sexual assault. The film is empathetic and thus not a good sell to the exploitation-horror crowd, though it may be uncomfortable to watch for anyone else. You have to have the constitution for it.
It's a bit like "Dogtooth" in the sense that it's about how a sadist can manipulate his victims' perception of reality, but moreso in the sense that it's an excellent film I won't be able to shake, but I'm not sure I want to see it again. It's about a real phenomenon, in which a prank caller impersonating a police officer convinces unsuspecting fast food workers to detain, search, and abuse an innocent employee. It has actually happened. The scary part is that it could happen to you or me.
I was already familiar with the Milgram experiment, which showed that a test subject will commit immoral acts if instructed by an authority figure. I'm aware also that innocent people often make false confessions under duress. And speaking for myself, if an authority figure looked at me funny I might start to wonder if maybe I really did do something wrong. Does he know what I did? How could he know? I don't even know …
We humans have a curious and exploitable relationship with authority. Often our instinct is to believe what we're told, and if we're skeptical we fear the consequences of disobedience. This may be at least a little bit true of all of us, though perhaps not to the extent of the characters depicted here. The caller in this film, inspired by pranksters whose great capacity for cruelty should disqualify them from human contact, expertly manipulates his victims, using flattery where needed, intimidation, tricking his marks into giving information and making them believe he knew it all along. Some so-called psychics use similar ploys.
Writer-director Craig Zobel takes a gradual approach, ratcheting up the tension bit by bit. Early scenes create a sense of the mundane, but as day turns to night and the crime escalates, he uses more closeups and shadows, and our feeling of dread increases. He always sympathizes with his characters throughout, never ridicules or condescends, from manager Sandra (Ann Dowd), whose naivete is one of the central driving forces of the incident, but who seems starved for friendship and likes to be told that she's doing a good job; to employees Kevin (Philip Ettinger) and Marti (Ashlie Atkinson), who object to the abuse but don't intervene. Even the victim of the assault, Becky (Dreama Walker), relinquishes her own power until it's too late for her to get it back.
None of them are heroes or villains. They're all subject to the same manipulation, probably for the same reason: when the police tell you to do something, you do it, either for fear of getting into more trouble, or for the approval of a job well done. The director explains in an interview included on the DVD that the dynamic of obedience is reinforced by the fast-food setting – an industry based on a strict hierarchy, where the lines of authority are clearly drawn. When "just following orders" is part of the job, we may more readily give up our autonomy. That's not to say the food industry promotes such behavior, but rather that it may be an especially ripe target for this brand of sadist.
There's a temptation when watching to wonder how its participants could have been so stupid; if only one of them would ask the right question sooner, be less accepting of an easily provable lie, the worst of it might have been prevented. But Zobel never invites us to ridicule his characters, and a queasy thought lingered with me: the fear that any of us could do the same.