How can anyone be so dumb?
This question will occupy your brain for most of this uncomfortable film. And dumb and stupid and gullible are the words. Even as people in positions of power commit appalling acts of abuse on their teenage victim. Cruel, horrific, abusive are not the words even though they ostensibly describe the acts.
A prank caller phones McDonalds impersonating a police officer and alerting the manager, Sandra (excellent performance by Ann Dowd), that one of her cashiers has stolen money from a customer’s purse; “Officer Daniels” convinces Sandra to search the victim’s purse and clothes, which then escalates to a strip search, and then continues to escalate to much worse. The movie does not care to analyze the neuroses of the caller — investigation into why some terrible people get off on control and abuse has been done. Instead, it wants to ask why otherwise “normal” and not overtly cruel people like Sandra would be so easily coerced into sexual assault. She does not do so unquestioningly; she wonders if doing these things are “right”, but Daniels’ constant reminder that he is a police officer continuously silences her objections. Sandra’s fiance is eventually called in, and the film demonstrates how women who are partners with abhorrent men blind themselves and (maybe even without realizing it) choose not to see.
Obedience to authority is infuriating, (dumb, stupid, gullible, etc) but common. Googling the case reveals that the real life impersonator pulled this off 70 times over a decade. The Milgram obedience experiment and the Stanford prison experiment are famous studies on the topic. When instructed by figures of authority, many people will harm others and require very little persuasion. Why is this? Undying dedication to a just world fallacy that allows them to get up in the morning? The banality of evil? Base human nature? I would assume most people who watch Compliance or read those studies would honestly say that they would not participate. Yet, if they were put these situations, with the pressure on, there is a good chance they would. It is incredibly unsettling.
This film frames an interesting paradox — it’d be be completely unbelievable if it was not a true story and had to be believed. “Based on a true story” usually means the director and writer took an enormous amount of creative license in interpreting the real events. Compliance, on the other hand, is an authentic retelling — the wikipedia article can be read as a scene by scene breakdown of the film. This begs the question of why it needed to be a movie in the first place, and my answer would be that seeing it play out visually imposes the horror on the viewer in the way a news bit never could. And the disorienting implausibility of the cast’s actions smartly replaces the suspension of disbelief that a narrative typically needs. I can’t believe this is happening becomes I can’t believe this happened.