Thursday, August 30, 2012

Are people really this gullible?

A lengthy article at changed my mind about Compliance, a movie that would seem far-fetched and contrived if it weren't based on real events.

Taking its cue from a vicious 2004 prank that took place at a McDonald's in Mount Washington, Ky.,  and from criminal episodes reported at  70 additional fast-food locations, Compliance becomes a morally complex look at human behavior that leaves you shaking your head in disbelief.

Director Craig Zobel, who also wrote the screenplay for Compliance, seems to have selected various parts of the story from several such incidents, but it's important to know that -- for the most part -- Compliance is more docudrama than fabrication.

Having said that, it should also be noted that Zobel has assembled his movie in a way that not only builds tension but challenges an audience.

Set at a fast-food outlet in Ohio, the movie establishes its milieu before getting down to business. A man claiming to be a policeman phones the manager (Ann Dowd), telling her that one of her employees (Dreama Walker) has been accused of stealing money from a woman's purse. We hear the voice of this policeman (Pat Healy) who mostly remains unseen.

At first, the call sounds reasonable enough. The policeman claims to want to quickly clear things up and move on. As the title suggests, the manager complies: She's in the middle of a busy Friday, and doesn't want any trouble. The supposed cop even knows the name of her regional manager and says he has discussed the matter with him.

As the movie progresses, the man on the phone  becomes more demanding, more demeaning and more sexual. Walker's Becky becomes the target of a variety of humiliations that are not easy to watch, so much so that the movie debuted to walk-outs at January's Sundance Film Festival.

Let me say this clearly: If you don't know what you're getting into, Compliance can be a rough ride. Consider yourself warned.

I'd say that Zobel has succeeded in directing in a way that's neither exploitative nor titillating, although much of what happens in Compliance certainly is alarming.

Before it's done, Compliance has become a study in the power of suggested authority and the gullibility and weakness of people who -- in forsaking common sense and their own moral standards -- participate in all manner of egregious behavior. The story is bizarre -- and all the more troubling because it's true.

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