The text alerting us that Compliance is based on a true story is so large that at the E Street Theater in Washington, DC, it overflowed the screen and crawled onto the walls. A projectionist's error, but one that writer/director Craig Zobel would likely endorse. Inspired by events so outrageous that they are almost impossible to believe, even when you're reading about them in a newspaper, Compliance uses its disclaimer as not as scintillation but as absolution. Zobel wants us to understand that when his movie dips into depravity and excess, it does so because reality compels it. He is examining moral corruption here, not inventing it. He is analyzing the effects of one man's perversion, not reveling in it. At least, that's the idea. But the film's tone suggests something else: morbid, rubbernecking titillation.
Before I go further, it's important to put two things on the table. First, when I watched Compliance I went in knowing that it was inspired by actual events, but I hadn't done any reading about the event(s) that inspired it. I assumed that Compliance's boldface proclamation of factual genesis meant only that it was loosely related to reality, no different than most movies boasting of being "based on a true story," and that assumption played a role in this second disclosure: I walked out of Compliance with about 20 minutes remaining. There are several reasons for my early exit, and we'll get to the others in a bit, but no doubt a large part of my motivation was due to my absolute certainty that Compliance had strayed so far from reality as to become utterly absurd. There was just no way that the events depicted on the screen could actually happen, I thought. No way! At best, Compliance was a mashup of all the worst incidents to ever occur in cases in which an anonymous caller purporting to be a police officer convinced workers at fast-food chains to humiliate or otherwise violate their coworkers. At worst, Compliance was vile voyeuristic fantasy. Whatever the case, its suggestion of truth was a lie. I was sure of that. But I was wrong.
As it turns out, Compliance is remarkably faithful to a single incident — one that, sadly, isn't unique. But that doesn't mean the movie isn't bogus, or that I regret walking out. In fact, if anything I regret staying so long. I acknowledge that if I'd read about the case(s) that inspired Compliance beforehand, I might have reacted differently. Then again, maybe not. Seeing is believing, the saying goes, but here the opposite is true. (Major spoilers the rest of the way.) Some of the first things to happen to poor Becky (Dreama Walker), the girl charged with taking money from a customer's purse, are somewhat understandable. Officer Daniels, at that point just a voice on the other end of the line, seems on the level: he describes Becky's appearance and knows the name of the fast-food chain's regional manager, who he claims is on the other line. Meanwhile, poor Sandra (Ann Dowd), the operating manager, a victim in her own way, is particularly overwhelmed this day, already feeling paranoid after much of the store's food went bad the night before, and for those reasons and others she's highly motivated to do the "right thing," which in this case means following the orders of two authority figures (most immediately Officer Daniels, but also, implicitly, her supposedly cooperative regional manager) and trying to keep Becky out of more serious trouble by resolving the matter in the store and over the phone. Sandra quickly goes too far, but she goes there with sincere and relatable motivations, with extreme reluctance and discomfort and, not to be overlooked, with at least a degree of Becky's consultation and approval. It's a fog of war scenario on a small scale, and one that's worth examining closely.
Alas, never again will the motivations of Sandra and Becky be so clear. Never again will the difference between right and wrong seem so muddled. Never again will there be such hesitance to violate Becky, even though the violations will increase in severity. Sure, all of this can be conveniently explained away: "That's what actually happened!" Indeed, it did. Indeed, the film is mimicking reality when Sandra's boyfriend comes to the store and agrees to participate, even though he has no personal stake in the matter, and takes the assault to new lows: spanking and sexually assaulting Becky. But, as I said, seeing is disbelieving. The acting in the film is solid across the board. The setting is legit. But the crimes are so perverse, outrageous and out-of-leftfield that they're hard to take seriously. And the biggest problem of all, dramatically and thematically speaking, is that while the horrors increase, the pattern becomes redundant.
Compliance has many backers, and the popular defense is to insist that Zobel is examining mankind's tendency to obey authority without pausing to reflect. But is he? Compliance portrays unblinking obedience, that's true, but to what end? Isn't there an artistic responsibility to do more than simply depict these transgressions? Shouldn't we try to understand them, too? By the time Sanrda's fiance shows up, Compliance has already clearly demonstrated the the powerful influence of authority, and the longer Becky's harassment goes on the more the film begins to resemble torture porn, with Officer Scott (a smirking Pat Healy, visible to us by then) pulling the strings of his cruel puppet show like Jigsaw. I suppose one could argue that Compliance reveals in human nature a lecherous curiosity that's always craving an excuse to be unleashed with impunity. But if that's true, Compliance is tapping into that dark desire with its drawn-out violations, as much as its reflecting it, which would make the audience complicit in a similar perversion.
I got up and left when I heard the word "spanking." Walking out, I passed no judgment on those who remained in the theater, and since then I haven't wasted any time questioning the judgment or taste of those who found a reason to stay. I'm not that kind of moralist. All I can do is articulate my own experience, and I left for the same reason that Sandra's violation of Becky should have stopped before it began: because it didn't feel right, and I would have been ignoring my instincts by staying. That's the irony. For more than an hour I watched Compliance with increasing discomfort, going forward only because I put too much faith in artistry, much like Sandra puts too much trust in authority. I kept telling myself that Compliance's sensationalism would eventually be counterbalanced by equally blatant examination of character, that eventually the film would focus less on Becky's tits and the perverted, diabolical caller and more on the people holding the phone, processing the request and relaying the orders, that there had to be more depth to this picture than simply ogling disaster. But I was wrong about that, too. Compliance made me believe all the wrong things.