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Compliance by Craig Zobel

January 23, 2013

Some people think prank phone calls are funny, I don’t think so, they are nothing but psychological manipulation and while I am aware that the human experience is permeated by it, doing it just for fun can only be the work of a devious mind. Compliance is a film about a prank phone call and I assume – no matter if you agree or or not with my opening statement – everybody knows prank phone calls can go wrong, but what we see in Compliance goes wrong beyond imagination (unless you have a wicked one). The story is so unbelievable that the director has felt the need to start the film with the following image:

This kind of information is pretty familiar but I had never seen it delivered by a full screen billboard like Craig Zobel does it here, I guess he has done it because he is the first one to know his story was unbelievable and unacceptable and only an unusually huge reminder like this one could tell the spectator: I know what you are thinking, this is an abject story but it happened for real, so maybe it’s better you don’t walk out of the movie theater (it happened at its premiere) because this is not entertainment, this is a film to help you face – and think about – the society you live in.

Compliance takes place into a fast food restaurant – in the film it’s a fake chain named Chick-Wich, in the true event it was a MacDonald’s – and in the first scene we meet the manager of the QSR Sandra (Ann Dowd): she has a busy day ahead of her, she expects the restaurant will be visited by a secret shopper – a franchise
quality-control person – then she gets a phone call in her office, it’s the Police, officer Daniels, he has a customer denouncing she has been victim of theft of money from her purse in Sandra’s Chick-Wich restaurant. Officer Daniels says he needs Sandra’s collaboration, she is the manager, she can do it, furthermore Officer Daniels sounds reassuring when he tells her:

“I want you to know that as an officer, the officer in this case, I have to take the full, final responsibility for this and I take that very seriously, okay?”

Needless to say the guy on the phone is not a Policeman and I don’t want to write what happens next, you can watch the film or read it here. Compliance is a social drama and a powerful one, this kind of films are hard to assess because we cannot deny the power and the truthfulness of the story, we can only evaluate its cinematic value: I think Zobel does a good job in the first few scenes before the real story begins, we get the substance of Sandra’s character instantly, then we meet all the restaurant’s workers that during the film will play some part into Becky’s (Dreama Walker) ordeal and their presentation is effective, during the rest of the film we’ll see them again and even the characters with limited screen time – like the waitress Connie (Nikiya Mathis) – leave a trace, something you will remember when the film is over. Zobel has avoided a voyeuristic approach – it would have made no sense otherwise – providing only tiny bits of information to make us understand/imagine what is going on, but the real coup de théâtre for me came at the end, when Zobel showed another full screen billboard.

Seventy incidents in twelve years! Most of the time the scene of the crime was a QSR, Zobel’s camera dedicates a lot of attention to the corporate structure of the restaurant, its apparent cleanliness and its actual dirt are portrayed in closeup takes: the illusion of safety through its aseptic look. Every human being can be turned into a machine and be led to do what you want, you just have to find the trigger: respect for authority is the trigger here, most people like not being in charge, the lines from the film that I have quoted before state clearly that Officer Daniels was in charge, Sandra was only being a dutiful citizen and a manager. There is no need to discuss the validity of the Milgram tests, in the everyday life the majority of the persons I meet have a passive attitude in front of what they recognize as authority, this film is a terrifying reminder of the possible results of such inert and dehumanized behavior.

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