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Exploring the perversity of mindless obedience

Oct. 22, 2012
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Frazzled, middle-aged Sandra is having a bad day. The freezer at the fast-food restaurant she manages wasn’t closed properly the night before, food has spoiled and, rumor has it, someone from franchise quality control will be snooping around tonight. Her bored, disaffected teenage staff isn’t responding to her tired pep talk. And with one phone call, her bad day is about to get worse.

Compliance is a movie with a message and an abrupt plot twist. The message on the danger of unthinking obedience to authority is wrapped inside the twist. In our Twitter, Rotten Tomatoes era, it’s hard to keep a secret, and even if this wasn’t so, the twist occurs midway in the movie and is drawn from an alarming number of similar real-life events. So, be warned: A spoiler is forthcoming…

The caller to Sandra (Ann Dowd) identifies himself as Officer Daniels from the police department. He claims that one of Sandra’s employees, the shallow but harmless Becky (Dreama Walker), has been accused of taking money from a customer’s purse, a charge supported by a police “surveillance team.” The officer is cordial but relentless, ordering Sandra to go through Becky’s belongings and then strip-search her to find the money. “I heard a little hesitation in your voice,” Daniels says, but only a little. Sandra is flustered by the call, which for her is yet another chore on a day that is already too busy. She doesn’t question the instructions from the unseen officer, only insisting that her assistant manager be present for the search, per corporate policy.

But as the crowds line up from the counter to the door for chicken sandwiches and fries, Sandra has to juggle her unwanted role as police auxiliary with her job as manager. She sends one of her teenage employees to watch Becky, and when he refuses to obey Daniels’ order to strip-search her again (“This is fucked,” he decides), Sandra deputizes her fiancé. After this point, everything grows even more strangely perverse. With only a slight shrug of reluctance, the fiancé complies with Daniels’ bizarre instructions to inspect Becky’s body cavities and even spank her as part of “procedure.”

The twist? Daniels isn’t really a cop, but rather some sociopathic prankster who has played this dirty game before.

Writer-director Craig Zobel keeps a tight focus on the proceedings, which with minimal adjustments could be remodeled as a stage play. The question dogging Compliance is simple—“Would anyone be as dumb as Sandra and some of her associates?”—but the answers are less so. Whether from apprehension or obligation, most of us tend to obey the police. But an unseen cop, even with a convincing story and demeanor? Maybe. Other psychological undercurrents might be moving the characters. Sandra may have resented her young employee (she overhears a catty remark near the film’s start), and her bumbling fiancé was threatened with a DUI by the wily Daniels and was obviously indulging in guilty pleasures with the lithe body of a terrorized teenage girl.

A taut, disturbing drama about obedience and trust, Compliance is a crafty story with two morals: Question authority and hang up on strangers when they call.

9 p.m. Oct. 26, 7 p.m. Oct 27 and 7 p.m. Oct. 28 at the UWM Union Theatre.


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