On Movies: Out of 'Compliance'
No blood is spilled in "Compliance," and no one dies. But this harrowing new independent film set in broad daylight in an ordinary town in suburban Ohio is, in its own way, as horrifying and dark as the hyper-realistic, notably gory 1990 horror movie "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer."
Both films are fiction strongly based on fact, and in both films human cruelty is depicted in such intense documentary-style realism that it's hard not to feel like a guilty voyeur eavesdropping on shameful acts -- acts that reveal things about human beings we might rather not know or think about. In both films, talented, little-known actors and an intimate shooting style add to the sense that what we are watching is happening to real people.
In "Compliance," directed with crisp narrative clarity by Craig Zobel (“Great World of Sound”), the nervous, middle-aged manager (Ann Dowd) of a fast-food restaurant receives a phone call from a man who identifies himself as a police officer. He tells her that a young employee with blond hair is suspected of stealing money from a customer's purse. The manager quickly identifies Becky (Dreama Walker) as the young blond, but, she says, there's no way she could have stolen money in the busy restaurant. Someone would have seen her.
The man on the phone, in a firm but friendly voice -- "You've got to help me out here" -- suggests that the matter can be cleared up without a big public police investigation. Besides, the police are busy on other cases. He says that the manager can clear Becky without further problems by searching her.
The manager is reluctant even to raise the matter with Becky, but slowly the "policeman" talks her into leading the young woman to a small storeroom on the pretext that she needs to speak with her in private.
Becky is terrified when the manager tells her of the accusation of theft, and she vehemently denies that she stole money, but she reluctantly submits to a search, hoping it will clear her. The manager pokes through Becky's purse, then quickly pats her down. She finds nothing, and reports that to the man she thinks is a policeman, hoping to end the matter, but the voice on the phone isn't satisfied. The man suggests it would be best for all concerned if the manager conducted a strip search.
Unbelievably, after some hesitation, the manager makes Becky take off her restaurant uniform. But the purported policeman does not stop there. He calls for Becky's underwear to be removed. Then he asks for a more intimate search. By now, Becky is frantic with worry, and in tears. But the "search" continues. The manager involves several other people in the supposed interrogation, and the ordeal, which becomes increasingly sexual and abusive, continues for hours, long past the point where it would seem that someone -- Becky, if no one else -- would put a stop to it.
I told a friend of mine about the movie, and I barely got to the point of the strip search when he said the whole idea was preposterous; it would never happen, someone would stop it. But, according to numerous news stories from across the United States in the 1990s and early 2000s, including an exhaustive report a few years ago in the Louisville Courier-Journal, it happened more than 70 times, in towns in North Dakota and Nevada, Iowa and Alaska, Kentucky and Indiana. (To find the Courier-Journal article, type "a hoax most cruel" into a search engine.) At fast food restaurants across American, supervisors forced young female employees to strip and, in many cases, endure body searches and worse at the command of a man on the telephone who maintained he was a policeman.
Like those experiments in which students were ordered by "scientists" to deliver increasingly painful shocks to test subjects, the movie is so horrifying in part because it depicts the cruelty human beings are capable of when responding to authority -- in this case, authority in the person of a psychopath who knows how to nudge people, step by step, into doing things they thought they would never do. And, of course, the film suggests at some level that the desire to be cruel to or dominate other human beings is not very far beneath the surface in ordinary human beings. If you carry the story to the extreme, it explains the rise of Adolf Hitler.
So. That's what the movie is about. Did I enjoy watching it?
Not really. I thought the story, particularly when I realized it was closely based on real events, was fascinating, and the acting and directing were solid. But, as with "Portrait of a Serial Killer," the film was such a realistic portrayal of such awful, inhumane human behavior that I found it to be almost too painful to watch.
Am I glad I saw it? Yes, for the thoughts it provoked if for nothing else. Would I watch it again? Nope. I feel the same way about "Portrait of a Serial Killer."
Opens Friday Aug. 31