Earlier this year, Richard Linklater’s film Bernie depicted a community coming to the defence of one of its most beloved members who had killed a vicious woman that had enslaved and berated him. Compliance is another sophisticated and imaginatively detailed blend of the sweetly comic foibles of small-town America combined with the riveting moral dilemmas characteristic of the best true-crime stories. As in Bernie, which was specific to Carthage, Tex., Compliance is based on an incident that occurred in 2004 in a rural suburb of Louisville, Ky.: Both films use their local geographies to interrogate universal concerns.
Compliance develops an intriguing premise intelligently, inquisitively and uncomfortably. During a shift at a chain restaurant called ChickWich, a manager named Sandra (Ann Dowd) is asked over the phone by someone posing as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) to detain a young cashier named Becky (Dreama Walker), who he says stole from a customer. The poseur cop uses various techniques to get the manager and others to comply with his instructions. By using the full-version of abbreviated names like Robbie, he establishes authority. Like a fake psychic or a bad shrink, and perhaps even like us, he’s mastered the art of gathering information from others through the power of suggestion. He pretends to share secrets to make friends – a version of the trust asked of us by Julian Assange, our economic whistleblower and truth-seekers everywhere. He knows when to compliment and when to berate in order to, essentially, seduce others and arouse himself. Is credibility always a masterful seduction of one sort or another, or can it ever be based on reality? The origins of sexuality and authority are two of this film’s distant, but visible, prey.
Becky’s victimhood can be painful to watch, but the film asks valuable questions if you can bear it. Disgust and awkward laughs are elicited in equal measure, for instance when the film cuts from Becky being mistreated in a back room to a packed restaurant scarfing down heavily battered chicken. Far from a trivialization of Becky’s situation, the film wonders at the cost exacted by complying with our so-called authorities. Its vivid landscape begins with the overarching presence of the American flag at the top of the credit sequence, and proceeds one discarded sandwich wrapper at a time.
The film contrasts the trivial concerns of the characters about insufficient pickles and bacon, and their “chunk combo” and “frosted thingy” cravings, to an overall concern with who or what we listen to for guidance, and suggests a relationship between the two. The latter dessert, a ChickWich specialty, is deftly given this haphazard description by a scraggly backroom employee, and would-be hero, named Harold, just so we don’t confuse it with Wendy’s similar “Frosty.” A later joke connects the two fast-food chains, and implicates the entire corporatized system with which we comply. Apparently, there were 70 similar incidents at fast-food restaurants across the U.S.
We’re also asked to think about what we can do and who can be held accountable, aside from the creepy pranksters themselves. One cop blames bad chicken.
The film’s final act, which draws media outlets, law enforcement agencies and U.S. bankers into its compass, is a near metaphysical provocation about the processes through which we accept top-down orders from amorphous authorities. Is the film exploitation or exposé? Let me know.