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Compliance: Maddeningly Subtle Horror

By Jim Rohner · August 19, 2012

The world in which Compliance is set is a world in which the vast majority of us find ourselves dwelling everyday: the world of the mundane.  This world is marked primarily in how unremarkable it is, with its suburban streets dotted by used and well-worn cars, its wintry concoctions of melting snow banks and parking lot garbage, its vapid deconstructions of text messages behind a fast food line.  In this world, the biggest disruptor of the daily grind is the early morning discovery that an irresponsible employee left the freezer open overnight, spoiling $1500 worth of frozen meat. 

"There were no pickles or bacon at ChickWich today" a bit player in this bleary Ohio setting would remark before going about his or her business.  This world is both morbidly fascinating and restrictive, it reeks of familiarity mixed with uneasiness.  We're fascinated by it, but we don't want to stay too long.  This world is commonly referred to as "reality."  It's with great precision that writer/director Craig Zobel reminds us how painfully ordinary our day-in-day-out existence often is, because only then can the gravity of the phone call that disrupts this day and the days to come be truly felt. 

The phone call in question is directed towards ChickWich store manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd).  Believing that her fiance, Van (BIll Camp), has put the wheels in motion to propose, she finds herself more curious than anxious when she gets a phone call from a man claiming to be an Officer Daniels (Pat Healy).  Officer Daniels claims that he has a woman with him who can testify that a suspect matching the exact description of ChickWich employee Becky (Dreama Walker) stole money from her purse earlier in the day.  This news surprises Sandra.  Becky may be your standard apathetic teenage food service employee, but this is the first time something this serious has been leveled against her.

Officer Daniels insists that Becky be held at the scene, her pockets and purse search thoroughly while the officer's "team" has time to get there.  Something doesn't quite feel right.  Why would an officer ask a citizen to help conduct an investigation?  Can this type of authority be bestowed upon someone over the phone?  A closer examination of the evidence presented would reveal that the alleged victim never actually described Becky.  Instead, a vague description – blonde girl, approximately 19 years of age – was tethered to Becky by Sandra.  The suspicions pile on geometrically, but how is Sandra supposed to know what's going on?  Here is a woman whose knowledge base includes nothing having to do with criminal justice or police procedure.  Until her phone rang, her primary concern was keeping the condiment stations "clean, clean, clean."

No money is found on Becky.  "I thought so," concedes Officer Daniels.  He orders a strip search.  Isn't a line being crossed now?  It's either a strip search here in the manager's office or this fragile, naive young girl gets brought "downtown" to be "booked and processed."  She'll likely have to spend the night in "lockup."  These are all words that sync up with our basic understanding of police procedure.  Take a step back and we'll realize our basic understanding of police procedure is fed to us by movies and TV shows.  Whoever this "Officer Daniels" is, he's clearly counting on these keywords to incite fear.

A strip search is conducted.  Still nothing.  Officer Daniels commands something associated with "orifices."  While Becky was scared and resistant at first, she has now become withdrawn and compliant, the psychological scarring palpably visible in her distant eyes.  This is definitely not right, Officer Daniels insists the full responsibility of this investigation will fall on his shoulders.  Besides, he's charming, sympathetic; he cites the old parental justification of painful actions that we were served countless times as children: "I don't like this anymore than you do."  But what happens when the money still doesn't turn up?  How far does he insist Sandra and the revolving door of ChickWich guardians she keeps with Becky go?  More importantly, will they actually go as far as he asks? 

The two questions that will likely keep arising as you watch Compliance are how and why: How could these characters let things go so far?  How did they not realize this was a prank?  Why did the prank caller do this?  Why did no one stop it sooner?  Sitting in the safety of a dark theater, it's easy to ask those questions.  It's easy to rage against the stupidity of Becky or Sandra or Van or against Zobel for being illogical in his writing.  But take a step back from your reality for a moment and really think about it.  Have you ever been pulled over?  Have you ever been yelled at by your boss?  Have you ever been arrested?  In those moments, how lucid and concise were you?  Is it always during the heat of the moment that you rise to the challenge or is it only after you've made the mistake that you say, "I should've said this" or "I shouldn't have done that"?  

Do you have an encyclopedic knowledge of police procedure?  "Well, if I was in that situation, I would've asked him x, y or z."  Great, you have hindsight – the one thing none of the characters being pranked had.  Even if you were to ask, what if this person had an answer for you?  "He just had an answer for everything" Sandra says reflectively and pathetically.  Zobel knows that while movies often depict the extraordinary, they ill prepare us to deal with it.  Here, in Compliance, the mundane is thrust into the extraordinary and it's painful – excruciatingly painful – to watch, not because it's exploitative or immature, but because in the back of our minds we all have to ask the question, "would I really have done the right thing?"

You think you would?  You think it's absurd to assume anything like this could or would actually happen?  Zobel would disagree.  Yes, the preeminent example to cite would be the Milgram Experiment of 1961.  One of the primary influences for the film, the Milgram Experiment would say that 66% of every day citizens would follow questionable orders so as long as they were assured the responsibility of their actions would fall on someone else's shoulders.  But don't look exclusively at the affairs of Mr. Milgram.  Look also to the 70 nationwide cases of prank-call-based sexual assault and rape that Zobel researched to write the film.  Look outwardly and more far reaching to the mandates, amendments and decrees handed down from Capitol Hill that we accept every day. 

Sure, none of us praise the government when we hear about another uneven bill being passed, but do we march in the streets demanding social change either?  That's the unspoken question that makes Compliance a truly compelling horror film.  Admittedly, there is no violence in the film, no creature that goes bump in the night and no gore, but there is terror – terror at the realization that compliance doesn't always mean willing acceptance.  None of the characters accept Officer Daniels' decrees without some degree of skepticism, but which of them actually do anything about it?  Kevin (Philip Ettinger), a co-worker of Becky and a tragic figure in his infertility, refuses to listen to the officer, but he also doesn't call the cops or go to anyone else.  By not being proactive, he too is complying.  There is always evil to fear, but the evil to fear the most is the indifference of good men.

How could he do that?  Why would he do that?  "He just had an answer for everything."  They always do.