What a fascinating and incredible film! I knew next to nothing about this and started watching, figuring I’d quit if I didn’t like it. In the first few seconds I was annoyed by giant text taking over the enter screen reading “Based on true events.” That seemed overly emphasized. But then the story got going and I was mesmerized.
Now I just preface this by saying that I now see why the director made that “true event” thing so prominent. It really is important. Basically, you’re watching people being manipulated into doing outrageous stuff — so ridiculous that it could be unbelievable. But this stuff really happened. Not just once, either, but over 70 times in 30 states.
I will also add that I just recently watched a couple of episodes of an interesting TV show called “Would You Fall For That?” where the hosts use psychological tricks to fool people. It’s fascinating stuff and a lot of it is the same stuff I saw in this film, which helps me understand why this works.
The movie is about a busy Friday night at a fast food joint. The stressed female manager receives a phone call from a cop telling her that one of her employees — a pretty blond girl — has stolen money from a customer. The cop says he’s in the middle of a larger investigation and can’t come there right this minute, but hopes the manager can help him out by questioning the girl.
The manager, in a brilliant performance by Ann Dowd, thinks she’s helping. The cop tells her he has her boss on the other line and names the man, comforting her as she thinks corporate is involved. She goes along with what the cop says, taking the girl to a back room. The cop explains they need to find the money — time is pressing, and he doesn’t want the girl getting rid of the evidence — and the next thing you know he’s insisting the manager strip search the girl.
I won’t spoil the whole plot, but the psychology this is based upon is real. When someone is authority tells us to do something, most of us will comply, especially if the request is minor. Once we’ve agreed to the first tiny thing, each subsequent request — even if more extreme — is easier to obey. So it really is understandable that the manager (and others) would go too far. It’s easy to watch this film and think, “That’s crazy! I’d never do that. These people are idiots!” But the truth is that any of us could be susceptible to this kind of manipulation.
You’ve probably figured out that the cop isn’t a cop: just a practical joker (of sorts), but the consequences of this guy’s actions are grave, and the movie’s a sobering reminder of the power of mindless obedience to authority. (It reminds me of a fantastic book called The Wave, about a high school experiment that recreates a Nazi-like environment with disastrous consequences, as students put in positions of power follow the orders of their superiors without question and do terrible things to their classmates.)
Compliance is not an easy or comfortable film. Outrageous things happen and it’s frightening to think that the movie is based on this “prank” happening over 70 times in real life. I do like the way it’s carefully written and directed and acted, as with this kind of psychological manipulation the tiniest misstep can throw off the whole thing. A single false note and the whole performance is ruined. This does really well, with the “cop” always coming up with an excuse for any errors in his story, and using intimidation to help encourage compliance. It’s pretty damned cool.
I am a bit annoyed with the “delicate” nature of the direction. One of my pet peeves is direction that works too hard to be coy. For instance, you know how on TV they show you the bare feet of a person in the shower and then cut to the person’s head and bare shoulders? You’re supposed to assume the person is naked, but they can’t actually show nudity so they do all these elaborate camera angles and stuff to make it seem like they’re showing something though they’re not. That annoys the heck out of me. It’s just so artificial. I’d rather they cut the shower scene entirely (it’s usually not necessary anyway) than tease me with stuff that’s not real.
Unfortunately, this film does that a little too often, and it does it in ways that makes it confusing. In a few scenes I wasn’t even sure what happened, or what was supposed to have happened, because the filmmaker didn’t actually show anything. That’s bad storytelling. It’s one thing to be careful about a sensitive subject matter, but it’s another to be so subtle that the viewer isn’t sure what happened.
It’s also sad because a more direct approach to the topic would have been even more shocking. It’s like the director was afraid of controversy and shied away from showing anything real. (A good analogy would be a comic telling a dirty joke and cleaning it up so much that it loses its humor.) The result is a slightly watered down film.
That doesn’t ruin the film — it’s still a great movie and worth seeing — but it could have been even better. On the whole, though, the film is full of terrific performances, writing, and directing, and the story is chilling. See it.