Compliance is a Problematic Misstep

Compliance is a Problematic Misstep

Chirag Mangnaik


Compliance hints at greatness, but is never able to fully manifest itself. This movie could’ve been a solid film that gave deep insight into human behavior. Unfortunately, Compliance never achieves its goals, in spite of boasting excellent acting and very able direction.

            Compliance tells the true story of Becky (not her real name), who works at a ChickWich (again, not the real name of the restaurant), and is told by her assistant manager that a police officer, over the phone, was accusing of stealing from one of her customers. The “police officer” then instructed the assistant manager (whose name, in the film, is Sandra) to conduct a strip search on Becky, which she does. Over the course of the rest of the phone call, Becky is made to do exceedingly sexual things to Sandra’s fiancé at the request of the “police officer”. In theory, Compliance should’ve illustrated the horror of authority going astray or being that easy to fake. It should’ve probed questions regarding how humans behave under authority, and what people can do to recognize when they’re being conned. Unfortunately, because of some mistaken creative decisions, a screenplay that could’ve been improved and second and third acts that fall apart somewhere around the midpoint, the film never fully realizes its narrative potential.

            Compliance is effective in getting the viewer to tell themselves that they’d never do anything like this, that they’d see through the ruse, but, at the same time, it keeps everything plausible enough to remind the viewer that the film is, indeed, inspired by a true story. In fact, the film informs us, over 70 such incidents happened in over 30 states. Clearly, this wasn’t an isolated incident.  And, yet, the film’s screenplay feels exploitative, like the incidents in the film shouldn’t have been depicted again. This is accentuated by the amount of screentime devoted to Becky with respect to the other characters. Admittedly, Ann Dowd gives a spectacular performance as the assistant manager, Sandra, but, in a film that should focus squarely on the victim, the film devotes too much of its runtime to other characters. Compliance is certainly bringing into question people’s tendency to blindly obey, but, amongst the characters’ moral dilemmas, far too little time is given to explore the horror of Becky’s situation.

            Compliance’s other big creative mistake was to include shots of the prank caller while he’s calling them. Of course, in most films, when two characters are on the phone, it’s logical to cut back and forth between them, in order to get both characters’ reactions to the phone call. However, in Compliance, given the amount of control the prank caller has over the situation, there is very little purpose in showing the audience the caller’s face. And, going back to my earlier point, these pointless shots divert attention from the characters that really matter.

Finally, Compliance’s last mistake was that it continued for too long. I understand that it’s based on a true story, but the film’s genre change from disturbing thriller to a drama with people talking to each other about the event, seemed odd and unnecessary. Admittedly, Dowd’s performance holds up even in those last few moments, but the scenes about catching the perpetrator, or deciding to sue ChickWich seemed unnecessary. As I’ve said before, the film is trying to get us to look at real people’s behavior and draw conclusions about obedience. It’s a real-life version of the Milgram experiment, named after Stanley Milgram, where participants were told to shock someone electrically if they got certain questions wrong, with the shocks increasing in magnitude, but the participants, upon insistence from the conductor of the experiment, wouldn’t stop. Of course, the other person was actually an actor who wasn’t getting shocked at all, but the point remains that people will do what they’re told if they’re told by an authority. The follow-up scenes do somewhat ground the film in reality, reminding the audience that this is a phenomenon rather than an incident, but, in the end, the film’s final moments weaken the film because of the taut 75 minutes that preceded them. The epilogue seems out-of-place, when the film should’ve really just ended with the police getting Becky.

However, with all of the film’s flaws, the positives are undeniable. Ann Dowd’s performance as Sandra is excellent, and the cinematography, where applicable, was spot-on. Near the end, the camera was mounted onto a car door so that it could follow a detective in a single shot. That was very creative. And, of course, the fact that Compliance stays extremely true to what really happened, rather than taking artistic liberties. Which might sound uncommon (after all, there are a lot of movies based on true stories out there), but, a lot of those films often blur or even completely hide the truth. It’s good that Compliance chose to say so true to the real-life events that transpired.