Meaty new film feeds off fright

Magnolia Pictures /Courtesy

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A fast-food restaurant, with greasy grills and artery-clogging fare, seems an unlikely setting for a thriller. But for “Compliance,” the newest film from Magnolia Pictures, fast-food is of little concern. Screenings of “Compliance” have driven audience members from theaters in droves. At the San Francisco screening alone, several viewers left the room, unable to cringe and squirm any longer. One exasperatedly questioned the audience at large, saying, “Why do you want to watch this ignorance?” Another exclaimed, “Nobody is this dumb” before exiting the theater.

What about “Compliance” could possibly incite so much anger in people? What aspect of the film draws out these superiority complexes? From whence stems the fear? Could it be the curly fries?

It’s not as easy as seasoned potatoes. Based on the true events that took place at a Kentucky McDonald’s, “Compliance” follows Sandra (Ann Dowd), the homely, middle-aged manager of a fictional ChickWich in Ohio as she executes a detective’s requests over the phone. Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) has a forceful, authoritative presence even over the line; Sandra never considers the fact that he may not even be a detective. She happily takes on the role of surrogate investigator in a case of petty theft.

The target of Daniels’ not-so-petty investigation is 19-year-old register clerk Becky (Dreama Walker), who is falsely accused of stealing money from a customer. Daniels orders Sandra to search Becky’s purse, and follows up with a demand to strip-search Becky. Daniels controls Sandra by encouraging and scolding her. He provokes guilt and fear in Sandra, then comforts her. Daniel’s is a subtle psyche manipulator, and Sandra is eager to serve.

For a film set in a fast-food joint, “Compliance” is slow, crawling along at the pace of a swamped drive-through but with many more times the agony. The camera always feels uncomfortably close, removing the distance between viewer and movie almost immediately. One stands inside the bleak backrooms of the ChickWich with Becky. The viewer is forced to be complicit with Sandra, powerless to stop her from carrying out Daniels’ outrageous requests, which become more perverse and abhorrent as the film continues.

Such mindless acquiescence seems unbelievable, but “Compliance” documents the most extreme case of 70 similar prank calls that went too far. Controversial social experiments, such as the Milgram and Stanford prison experiments, have delved into the psychology of such contemptible obedience. “Compliance” presents these tendencies less experimentally.  It is a harrowing 90 minutes of cringe-inducing “extreme” behavior.

But if it were truly extreme, members of the audience wouldn’t be driven from their seats. It’s not when a film presents fantasy that people are afraid, but rather when a film hits too close to home. Though the content may be superficially foreign — how many fast-food managers could there possibly be in a theater at once? — it is familiar. No, movie-goers are not complying with requests to strip-search young employees. Yet movie-goers, whether they choose to leave or remain in their seats, sacrifice their autonomy.  In subtle, everyday ways, we too comply — with the expectations of our bosses, family, friends, and society itself.

It’s an uncomfortable film because it forces the viewer to consider in what ways they are like Sandra: unquestioningly following ridiculous rules from a faceless power. Highly recommended for its ability to throw one out of his or her comfort zone, “Compliance” compels us to consider how we, at some point or another, ask, “May I take your order?” to the authoritative figures and social structures in place. Would we like fries with our slap of truth? “Compliance” is happy to acquiesce.