44 Days of Paranoia #26: Compliance (dir by Craig Zobel)

(Minor Spoilers Below)

For our latest entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, we take a look at one of the most disturbing films of 2012, Compliance.

Compliance opens with the dowdy and middle-aged Sandra (Ann Dowd) arriving at the fast food restaurant that she manages.  Sandra, at first glance, seems to be a rather forgettable and conventional, the type of person who we see every day but don’t give much thought to.  It’s only when Sandra gets a phone call from a man claiming to be a police officer that we start to see the disturbing reality underneath Sandra’s perfect facade.

The man tells Sandra that one of her employees may have stolen money from a customer’s purse.  He asks Sandra to detain the employee until the police arrive.  Based on a vague description given by the man, Sandra decides that the employee in question must be Becky (Dreama Walker), a cashier who Sandra earlier had some conflict with.

Sandra calls Becky into her office and confronts her with the man’s accusations.  When Becky denies them, the man tells Sandra to strip search Becky.  Though she is initially hesitant, Sandra does perform the search and finds nothing.

However, the man isn’t finished humiliating Becky.  As the man’s instructions grow more extreme and bizarre, Sandra soon starts to recruit others to help her keep Becky under watch.

Compliance is a portrait of both abusive authority and petty sadism.  Dreama Walker is sympathetic as Becky while Ann Dowd turns Sandra into a frighteningly plausible monster.  And, make no doubt about it, Sandra is a monster.  The prank call simply gives Sandra an excuse to unleash all the resentment that she feels towards the younger and prettier Becky and it leads to a very interesting dynamic in which both the caller and Sandra become allies in a conspiracy to humiliate and, ultimately, dehumanize Becky.  Throughout the film, the caller’s claims grow more and more flamboyant and we, as an audience, are forced to decide whether Sandra is genuinely fooled or if she’s just using the call as an excuse to justify acting on her own resentments.

What makes Compliance especially disturbing is that the film itself is based on a true story.  Most film usually use the term “based on a true story” quite loosely but Compliance sticks very closely to the facts of something that happened in a McDonald’s in 2004.  Just like in the film, a man pretending to be a police officer called the McDonald’s and told the manager that one of the cashiers was suspected of being a thief.  Just as in the film, the caller ordered the cashier to be stripped naked and eventually ordered the manager’s fiancée to sexually assault the cashier.

When that incident made national news, I know that a lot of people (like me) reacted by wondering how the manager could have been so stupid and making a few jokes about the type of people who make a career out of fast food.  As a society, we tend to assume that incidents like this are somehow not the norm.

However, as Compliance demonstrates, there was more to this incident than just stupidity.  We are continually told that we have to automatically respect and obey anybody who presents himself as being an authority figure, whether it’s the uniformed cop who responds to any hint of dissent with either his taser or his gun or just some unseen guy on the phone who claims to be an officer of the law.  We’re continually told not to question men in authority, instead we’re simply to assume that anything they say is both important and correct.  As Compliance demonstrates, sadists like Sandra are not as unusual as we like to assume.  They’re just doing what they’ve been bred to do.

They’re following orders and respecting authority.

They’re maintaining compliance.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer
  25. Chinatown

4 responses to “44 Days of Paranoia #26: Compliance (dir by Craig Zobel)

  1. I totally agree that this was one of the most disturbing films of 2012. I think it’s sad that people write off the characters in this one as ‘stupid’, especially considering that the film is based on real events. The film is quite psychologically complex when considering the characters’ unconscious responses to authority, whether or not the authority is physically present. Great film, great review! 🙂


  2. It’s not just a film based of real events, but also an example of one of the most controversial social psychological experiments to come out of the 1960’s: The Milgram Experiments.


  3. Pingback: 44 Days of Paranoia #36: The Fugitive (dir by Andrew Davis) | Through the Shattered Lens

  4. Pingback: Lisa Marie’s Week In Television: 12/11/22 — 12/17/22 | Through the Shattered Lens

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