COMPLIANCE. Starring Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp. Written and directed by Craig Zobel. Rated M (coarse language and adult themes) . 90 minutes.
Set in a Kentucky fast-food restaurant,Compliance is a disturbingfilm that stretches credibility in much the same way as does the 2010'mockumentary' Catfish: how can people be so gullible and unquestioning? But as the storysteadily unwinds with doco-style minimalist realism, incredulity grows to outrage, leaving the viewer feeling unnerved and perhaps a little grubbyby film's end.
As the middle-aged manager of a local 'Chick Wich' diner, Sandra (Ann Dowd) is hard-working and diligent, struggling to do what is expected of her at work and in her relationship with her fiancé, Van (Bill Camp).
When we meet Sandra in the morning, she is preparing herself and her crew for a 'secret shopper', who will be reporting to the chain's regional manager about the restaurant's cleanliness and service. 'Clean, clean, clean!', Sandra chants to pretty Becky (Dreama Walker), sensible Marti (Ashlie Atkinson), and not-so-reliable young Kevin (Philip Ettinger).
In the middle of these preparations, the phone rings and a policeman who identifies himself as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) demands that Sandra takes steps to recover money stolen by Becky that morning from one of their female customers. Sandra is dumbfounded but dutiful, and following the policeman's explicit and increasingly bizarre directions over the phone, begins a full body search of Becky which exposes to us as well as Sandra herself, uncomfortable facts about the very human propensity to follow orders.
As we watch objectively from our seats in the cinema, it is easy to dismiss as absurd and unconscionable the sequence of events which lead to Becky's sexual humiliation at the hands of Sandra and her unfortunate partner, Van. However, Compliancedemands that we suspend credulity, and place ourselves in the shoes of not only Sandra, Beckyand Van, but the many of our kind (in totalitarian regimes especially), who instinctively conformand obey when ordered by a psychologically cunning or threatening authority figure (the 'officer' on the telephone).
The most startling example of our proclivity for compliance is the electric shock experiment conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgramat Yale University in 1961, in which most people willingly pulled a lever to deliver pain to others when instructed to do so, thus demonstrating that a person's moral attitude can be suppressed when placed in a situation which demands or asks obedience.
With this experiment in mind perhaps, and inspired by 70 similar events in the US, Compliance is calculated to make the blood rise in protest at the dangerous idiocy of much human behaviour, rather than the audacity of its director, who in one confronting scene flirts dangerously with pornography to make his disconcerting point.
Overall however, Complianceis humorous as well as realistic, salutary as well as entertaining, all of which makes it worth-whileviewing.
Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out 17th January 2013.