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Compliance– Movie Review

Submitted by on August 24, 2012 – 11:34 am3 Comments

The first thing the audience sees in the movie Compliance is the words “INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS” filling the entire screen. This is possibly because there is little other justification for the ensuing ninety minutes of slowly unraveling cruelty that leaves the audience squirming with discomfort and disbelief- and not in a good way. Despite the film’s source material, Compliance fails to make us understand why these good people do horrible things, and is never gripping or compelling.

“Officer Daniels” calls a small-town fast food franchise and tells ambitious manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) that an employee stole money from a customer. After determining that it is Becky (Dreama Walker), Officer Daniels begins hours of demands that Becky be stripped searched and cavity searched “until he gets there”; other employees and Sandra’s fiance Van are pulled in, and whenever anyone objects, Daniels has an answer that pushes them forward. Finally, Sandra realizes her mistake, and the real police are summoned.

Writer/director Craig Zobel has clearly done his homework, researching both the actual crimes and the infamous Miligram and Stanford Prison experiments that documented the human tendency towards authority. This is evident every time Officer Daniels asserts his position as an authority figure, or explains that he takes responsibility for whatever is done. But like I said, all of this proof of the “reality” of these events does not mean that the filmmaker’s translation succeeds.

In his eagerness to make his characters believable, pliable, and sympathetic, Zobel strips them of any malicious intent. They are merely victims of authority. But Zobel misses something: maybe authority gives people license to unleash bad things that were already there. (Check out 2001′s Das Experiment.  Also inspired by the Stanford Prison Experiment, it presents  a somewhat similar, but more convincing, film about how a mediocre, lonely person can commit atrocities when given authority.)


The character’s naivete got difficult to believe. Okay, so maybe they’re not up on their constitutional liberties, but have none of them ever heard the Miranda rights on TV?

Still, I could forgive a lot until the disturbing ending. Daniels gets Becky to perform oral sex on Van, ostensibly as a “reward” for how well Van has aided the officer. It was difficult to believe that Van and Sandra wouldn’t suspect something when Officer Daniels’ voice breaks as he asks about Becky’s panties, or as he asks Van to describe her nipples and pubic hair. But how could Daniels have convinced them that oral sex was part of the investigation?

It’s no small feat that Zobel produced a film so viscerally gripping and affecting. The claustrophobic close-ups that occupied much of the film made the few more expansive shots burst like a breath of fresh air. Still, with so much confusion, so little connection to the characters, and the ending a forgone conclusion, there’s no dramatic tension, just discomfort.

At the end of the film, a (real) police officer asks what made everyone go crazy. I guess this was meant to provide context; the police officer naively underestimates human obedience to authority. But I was just as confused as him.

Did you see Compliance? What did you think?

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