Of all of last year’s films I didn’t get to see during their initial release, Compliance was among those I most lamented missing. Its premise was pure, ludicrous pulp – things spiral horribly out of control when a prank caller posing as a cop convinces a restaurant manager to detain and strip-search an employee – yet it was said to be more of an understated indie drama than a gimmicky Hollywood thriller, and the critics loved it. And of course, it was “based on true events.” Yes, that page of the movie marketing playbook is best taken with a softball-sized grain of salt, but in this case, it only made things more intriguing. I was less interested in the preposterous story itself than the fact that director Craig Zobel had successfully sold it to discerning audiences. He had made believers out of people like me, and I wanted to see how he did it, so when Compliance showed up on Netflix recently, it went right to the top of my queue.
After I watched the film, it didn’t take much research to learn that it actually is based on true events, and painstakingly so, to the point that a Wikipedia article about the original incident works quite well as a script outline (spoiler alert). The few reviews I read that failed to do this research and dared to find the film implausible were inundated with comments from fans reprimanding the reviewer, linking to reports of dozens of similar incidents, and citing the (literally) shocking results of psychologist Stanley Milgram’s infamous obedience experiment. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe it,” the commenters said, “because it actually happened!”
But here’s the thing: to those of us who found Compliance completely ridiculous, it does matter that we didn’t believe it. It’s the difference between 90 minutes of awed discomfort and 90 minutes of incredulous exasperation. When these real-life fast food workers were coerced, against all logic, into a game of escalating depravity, it was likely due to an imbalance of cleverness: the prank caller had an extraordinary silver tongue, the victims were bona fide idiots, or both. But none of the characters in Compliance fits either of those descriptions, and each of the caller’s completely crazy orders that is obeyed without resistance is more maddening than the last. There is no one to identify with because no one’s behavior makes any sense.
Another recent film, The Imposter, is based on an even more outrageous true story – a 23-year-old French sociopath convinces an American family that he is their missing 16-year-old son – and tells it masterfully. It succeeds where Compliance fails largely because it is a documentary, replete with interviews of real people. If I hadn’t heard The Imposter’s incredible story straight from the horse’s mouth, I’m not sure I would have bought it.
But regardless of whether it is a documentary or dramatization, the difficult task of any film telling a remarkable true story is to let the audience understand how it happened. And when it comes to understanding the disturbing events that inspired it, Compliance is as baffled as anyone else.