Movie review: Compliance

Posted on June 22, 2012


My review first appeared on the now defunct

In the years following World War II academic psychologists grappled with the phenomenon of apparently normal people following orders to act inhumanely to other people and indeed to participate in mass-murder. In 1947 California Psychologist Theodore W. Orno devised a personality test to measure what he termed the authoritarian personality. His work has since been refined to what is known as Right-wing authoritarianism and the number of criteria reduced to three traits:

Dreama Walker as an accused restaurant employee in Compliance

1. Authoritarian submission — a high degree of submissiveness to the authorities who are perceived to be established and legitimate in the society in which one lives.
2. Authoritarian aggression — a general aggressiveness directed against deviants, outgroups, and other people that are perceived to be targets according to established authorities.
3. Conventionalism — a high degree of adherence to the traditions and social norms that are perceived to be endorsed by society and its established authorities, and a belief that others in one’s society should also be required to adhere to these norms.

In 2004, a man named David Stewart was arrested in Panama City, FL, in connection with a series of prank calls to fast food restaurants around the country, in which he had allegedly impersonated a police officer and convinced managers to detain and strip search female employees that he accused of theft. Yesterday at The Broadway Screening Room I attended an advance screening of the movie Compliance which is based on one of those prank calls. The movie will open in theaters on August 17, 2012.

Had I not already been familiar with the psychological research on authoritarian behavior I would have found it hard to believe that the manager of the Ohio ChickWich restaurant (ably portrayed by Ann Dowd) and some of her employees could be so gullible, so utterly lacking in critical thinking skills. Why did they believe the caller was who he claimed to be? It seems that anyone who has watched television police dramas could find holes in his story. And yet in 70 cases across the country fast food restaurant managers followed the prank caller’s instructions to the letter.

I found the film disturbing and thought provoking, but at 90 minutes (even though it condensed a three and a half hour conversation) I thought it was too long. If it were re-edited Compliance would make a fine one hour TV drama; I’m not convinced it needed to be a feature length film. The cinematography captures what running a fast food restaurant is like.

There is a perhaps unavoidably creepy aspect not only to what the prank caller (played byPat Healy), who identifies himself as “Officer Daniels,” is doing but in the way the viewer is turned into his voyeuristic accomplice. This is exacerbated by the fact that Dreama Walker, whose acting performance as the accused employee is very good, has breasts that are so identical in shape and size as to appear unnatural and indeed look surgically enhanced. If viewers are expected to empathize with this character rather than ogle her why did directorCraig Zobel chose an actress for the role whose breasts resemble those of a porn star?

I’m glad I saw Compliance, but I’m also glad I didn’t pay to see it. I’m sure the film will work as well on a smaller screen (and many of today’s flat-screen TVs are not that small) and advise readers to wait for it to appear on IFC, the Sundance Channel, or on premium cable.