Will you shut up and do what you're told?
That's the central question everyone who sees Craig Zobel's "Compliance" will be asking themselves after they leave the theater. Some will fancy themselves educated and willful enough to overcome even the most insistent authority figure, laughing the film's protagonists off as rubes, while others will be insulted to even consider themselves to potentially be so easily led astray. And some perhaps simply won't like what the answer might be.
Will you please just SHUT UP and do what you're TOLD?
The movie poses this query to Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager of an Ohio branch of Chick-Wich, a fast food joint not unlike another controversial fried chicken chain that's been in the news recently. Sandra is a mostly amiable middle-aged boss dealing with the stresses of a particularly trying Friday rush as she manages her skeleton crew of sassy teenage employees, including register girl Becky (Dreama Walker).
When Sandra gets a phone call from Officer Daniels (a chilling Pat Healy) saying that he has witnesses testifying that Becky stole money from a customer, the harried manager hauls Becky into her office, going through the girl's purse and personal items and finding nothing. The officer is unrelenting, though, and convinces Sandra and other employees that it's in this girl's best interest to strip search Becky in the most degrading way possible.
But that's just the beginning, as Officer Daniels goes through the full rotation of Chick-Wich employees to keep tabs on Becky, or worse … all without anyone ever questioning whether this man they've been on the phone with for hours is a real policeman. (HINT: He's not.)
Whether or not our minds are so malleable as to abandon our moral barometer at the first hint of an authority figure telling us what to do is a question famously posed by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram during his obedience experiments in the early 1960s. He had test subjects administering electric shocks to another "subject" (not actually) at the behest of a learned-looking man in a labcoat. While some refused to continue administering the shocks at a certain point, a vast majority of subjects did, some with little hesitation.
The man posing as an officer in "Compliance" is also testing people's susceptibility to influence, except his social experiment is about getting his sadistic rocks off by breaking people down to the point where they're no more than trained dogs. This all builds to a chilling crescendo when "Officer Daniels" gets on the horn with someone under the influence of alcohol, and the situation goes from a disturbingly drawn-out prank call to something truly evil.
Written and directed by Craig Zobel ("Great World of Sound"), a longtime associate of David Gordon Green (a producer on "Compliance"), has crafted a deceptively simple film that depicts a scenario that actually occurred in 30 U.S. states 70 times over the course of a decade. The strip search prank call scam targeted fast food chains like McDonald's in rural areas, and those questioning how the people in the film could be so gullible need only look at those numbers.
Character actress Ann Dowd ("Freaks & Geeks") is incredible, instilling just the right balance of naivety in Sandra that our heart breaks knowing that she thinks she's doing the right thing for all involved when she's really the devil's puppet. Dreama Walker's depiction of Becky's gradual dehumanization is tragic, with one shot of her vacant eyes towards the end of the film conveying a victim who's had every shred of dignity taken from her.
The MVP of this show has to be Pat Healy, who mimics the cadence of cop talk over the phone so well you may occasionally lapse into believing that he's the real deal, too. Expect to see Healy playing a range of insidious characters in higher profile films very soon.
Now you've read this piece, you know the facts and hopefully you'll take the time to see this riveting, thought-provoking movie — but we have to ask you one last time because we're not sure if you're up to this:
WILL YOU SHUT UP AND DO WHAT YOU'RE TOLD?