NOTE: This review contains spoilers for Compliance. Though the film is based on real events, if you are not familiar with the real events or the film, I strongly advise seeing the film before reading this or anything else about the film’s plot.
One of the most resonant scenes in Craig Zobel’s powerful new film, Compliance, comes near the end, when Becky (played by Dreama Walker), the fast-food cashier who has been falsely accused, stripped, imprisoned, and raped, wants someone to pay for her ordeal. She tells a lawyer she wants to sue her boss, Sandra. But that’s not the best course of action, says the lawyer. What’s the use in suing a now-unemployed fast-food manager? It makes much more sense to sue the chain where you worked: It will have much deeper pockets and, besides, wasn’t it really the company’s fault, for not having proper guidelines for this type of situation?
This rationale represents a perfect conclusion to the film, which is largely about how people absolve themselves of responsibility by submitting to authority and, moreover, how society tends to reward and condition this behavior. Compliance opens with a small but revealing scene: Sandra (played by Ann Dowd) has to get an emergency delivery after someone left the freezer door open the night before, but the delivery guy chews her out for not telling her supervisor first. “I thought I would deal with this first,” she explains, “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Later that night, someone calls the restaurant claiming to be a police officer and accuses Becky of stealing from a customer. “I’ll do everything that you need,” Sandra tells him, and proceeds to search Becky’s pockets and purse. Then she makes her take her clothes off. Then she takes her clothes away. Then she leaves her under the supervision of three different men, one of whom, also acting on orders from the “officer,” rapes her.
What makes Compliance work so well is that it makes these events which, taken as a whole seem unfathomable, build slowly and naturally. The film captures the psychology of authority, depicting how quickly an accusation turns into a presumption of guilt and how the right mixture of compliments and criticism can get people to do almost anything.
Every small detail is explored: memory’s ability to deceive in small but crucial ways (“He gave me your name!” Sandra tells Becky, though in fact Sandra said Becky’s name before the “cop”), small talk’s ability to defuse almost any situation, and, most importantly, the tendency to accept elaborate and implausible explanations if they make life easier. At the end of the movie, someone asks Sandra why she didn’t question the peculiar nature of the events: “I asked several times,” she explains. “He had an answer for every question I asked.”
There have, of course, been many famous studies documenting peoples’ willingness to obey orders, no matter how horrible. Compliance, though, makes the issue intensely personal. There are only a handful of characters and most of the film takes place in the backroom of the restaurant, making it feel both mundane and claustrophobic. It is almost a barrage of close-ups: There are close-ups of faces, clothing, body parts, and even French fries.
This intimacy does two things. First, it gives the audience a sense of Becky’s helplessness: Though she knows all these people, nobody is helping her and there is nowhere to go. Secondly, it drives home the theme of personal responsibility, and how people walk away from it. The film’s world is small and there are no real “heroes” of the story: One assistant manager comforts Becky, but doesn’t stop the situation. A co-worker refuses to go along, but doesn’t intervene on her behalf. This could potentially feel cynical, but it only comes off as realistic.
The most realistic thing about Compliance is how quickly people will ignore their moral instincts if someone else gives them permission: Characters are constantly asking if things are okay, but as soon as they hear that “corporate” has approved, that the police have done this before, or that someone else has accepted it, they go along with whatever they were objecting to.
“Personal responsibility” is a phrase that has been co-opted by cynical politicians (like “violence in the media”) so that it tends to ring hollow. Anyone who says it now seems ready to blame poor people for being poor and criticize any form of government assistance as a handout. But Compliance illustrates why the decline in “personal responsibility” is a legitimate problem today, in ways that have nothing to do with Medicare.
At the end of the film, Sandra accepts some responsibility, but insists that she didn’t do anything anyone else wouldn’t have done. When thinking about this response it’s worth remembering that almost everyone in today’s society belongs to some kind of institution. You work for a corporation, or you attend a school, or you belong to a Church, etc. All of these organizations emphasize asking permission and following instructions. It’s almost impossible to exist in modern society without encountering this type of behavior: You go to the airport, and someone has to check to see if your toothpaste is too big to take on a plane.
Everywhere we go, people are asking permission or following orders. It is ingrained in how society functions. This has its benefits, but it also denigrates the idea of personal responsibility. People at important institutions are rarely held accountable, so long as they got permission from the right people. When the government tortures people, nobody is held responsible. When banks commit fraud on a massive scale, they pay a fine and nobody goes to jail. When the newspaper “of record” gets something crucially wrong, it takes a mulligan. And when Becky gets sexually assaulted, she sues the company, and not her boss. We are used to our institutions failing us, but we tend to forget that these institutions are comprised of people. It was people within these institutions that ultimately chose to do those things, even if they were following orders.
At the end of Compliance, it’s a maintenance man who refuses to go along with the phony cop’s requests. The officer offers a typical reply: “It’s not really up to you.” It’s the kind of thing he’s been saying to everyone, and it’s worked every time, but not this time: “I’ll be damned if it’s not,” the man shoots back. He’s remembered something people often forget: We’re all ultimately responsible for the things we do, whether or not we have permission.