Friday, September 14th, 2012

Compliance has stirred up a fair amount of controversy since it debuted at Sundance, and this week, we bring Compliance to you, the faithful and stalwart patrons of CinemaSalem. And stalwart you will need to be. Based on a real life case, the details of which can be reviewed here, the film depicts an incident at a fast food restaurant in which the employees are victimized by a prank caller pretending to be a police officer. Directed by Craig Zobel, who many (strangely enough) might recognize as one of the founders of Homestar Runner, the film expertly weaves a taut narrative of the horrific events that viewers should always keep in mind, actually occurred in a Kentucky McDonald’s in April of 2004. Although most of the critical response has been positive, praising the subtle performances of the cast and the script, there are plenty of voices who have derided the film as simply unbelievable. I’m not going to take a lot of time echoing the positive responses. It’s a well-made, consistently uncomfortable, and at times, down-right chilling film. And the films stars, Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker are incredible. No arguments there.

But I do want to chime in on its believability and say that I don’t think its appropriate to characterize the film, or the crime itself, as unbelievable (although it may be a defense mechanism to do so). Part of what makes the film so effective is that even though what is going on will go against every human instinct most people possess, Zobel manages to successfully portray a scenario in which the viewer can imagine her or himself in the same situation. And then be unsure of how he or she would act. It’s very simple to read about the crime itself and say, “I would never fall for that.” After all, as a species, we really hate being duped. But in watching the film, it becomes clear that most of these people are pretty average in most regards, like you and me. They are not any less intelligent than us, no less moral and decent. Almost none of them blindly follow what is being said to them. What happened is a lot more complicated than a simple response to authority, which is what many say about both the crime itself and the film–it speaks to how humans respond to authority.

But the guy on the phone wasn’t a cop. He was a criminal–manipulative, intelligent, bent on eliciting a specific response. Authority is simply the tool he used to get in the door. Once he was in, he preyed expertly on fear, insecurity, and shame to manipulate the employees (and one non-employee) of that McDonald’s into detaining, humiliating, and ultimately sexually assaulting one of their own. Sure, authority plays a role, but fear and insecurity are the caller’s most sharply honed weapons. No doubt, the film is challenging. And it’s not particularly enjoyable to watch. But it is essential, and deserves attention and thought. How would you respond in such a situation? The caller makes the victim complicit in her own imprisonment. Would you be able to stand up for yourself in such a scenario? Don’t blow it off. I did at first. I didn’t WANT to think about it. But I did. This film can inspire us to take a moment and really evaluate ourselves.

Fear and insecurity are the most powerful human motivators. It’s everywhere: TV commercials (Get ADT to avoid the horror of home invasion) and political ads (our candidate is better for national security and the economy. Vote for him and you will be safe and get to keep your job and your house) are just a few of the kinds of messages that use fear to sway our opinions. We are ALL prone to falling prey to these kinds of arguments. The employees of that Kentucky McDonald’s were no different. Compliance serves then as a warning and reminder to stand up for yourself and others, even when you are insecure and afraid that you might be wrong or that you might get hurt. Those are the times when it’s most needed.