Reviews In The Machine : Compliance (2012)
Compliance is a movie that I watched ages ago, back in the days of old of Netflix and bright red envelopes. But the movie recently popped up again on my Amazon prime list so I thought it would be worth paying it a revisit.
Compliance isn’t a horror movie necessarily. It doesn’t have monsters or the supernatural or any kind of ghoulish threat to our main characters. However, the experience of the protagonist in this movie definitely crosses over the border into what anyone in their right mind would consider to be horrific. It’s the kind of story that shines a disturbing light on how easy it can be to get people of strong moral character to do the most depraved and horrible things.
The film is based on actual events which maddeningly could be accurately be described as a series of phone pranks. For the most part the basic details were the same. An individual calls in to a restaurant claiming to be a police officer. He tells the manager that he has just taken a complaint from a customer who claims that a cashier from the restaurant has stolen money from her purse. And because there isn’t an officer available to come to the restaurant, he needs the manager to pull the employee aside, detain her and go through her belongings to try and find this money.
Despite how this should seem to be a clear violation of someone’s rights, the voice on the other end of the phone is very convincing. What starts out as seemingly legitimate, while unusual, quickly escalates into a situation of unlawful detainment and sexual abuse as act after act is performed on an innocent child, all under orders from no more than a voice of apparent authority.
In real life, the individual who was responsible for these incidents would place over fifty different calls to restaurants around the country and would take place over a period of several years. The movie however seems to be largely inspired by one of the last incidents before he was finally caught, in which an employee at a McDonald’s was held against her well in her manager’s office, naked and alone for several hours. The amount of abuse she was subjected to is enough to make the parent in me want to go into a complete and total rage.
It’s difficult for me to watch a movie like this and realize how it’s so possible for people, perfectly rational intelligent people to be so…careless is the word I think I’ll use. I’d like to use a different word but in the interest of being polite, we’ll just call them careless.
And I do try to be somewhat sympathetic to the individuals who perpetrated these crimes. There have been plenty of studies that have demonstrated how on an unconscious level people will allow their personal morality to go out the window if they think they are under the instructions of a proper authority figure. In one notable study, subjects proved themselves willing to deliver electric shocks to a patient simply because they were told to by the person in charge of the study. The shocks weren’t real of course, and the individuals involved were actors but the study went a long way to show how people could be pushed into doing things they likely never would’ve thought themselves capable of.
Is it possible that the managers of these restaurants lost hold of their rationality in an attempt to please an authority figure that only existed in their mind? I have to accept the possibility that this could be the case.
And we also need to consider that this guy for the most part chose fast food restaurants as his victims. The fast food industry isn’t exactly known for encouraging strong independent thought from their employees. I don’t say that in a disrespectful sense and I’m not suggesting that anyone who works at a McDonald’s is stupid. My point is that the industry is very much centered around assembly-line service. Where the ones who can get the most done in the least amount of time are the ones who are propelled up the chain. The ones who can make “how may I serve you?” the centerpiece of their perspective. I think it would be slightly disingenuous to not at least take into consideration that this is an industry where people are encouraged to follow instructions and stay in line. For a lot of people, when they think they are being addressed by a police officer, they can end up in a position of trying to please the authority figure before doing what they think is right.
And this guy was very good. He did his research. Often he would have an accurate physical description of his intended victim. Sometimes he would claim to have spoken to the restaurants corporate offices and he would have the correct names of those managers. He studied police procedures and was highly effective at creating that illusion.
Despite all my sympathy, though, that doesn’t mean I feel like these managers should be absolved of responsibility. That while they were also victims somewhat, it’s nowhere near on the same level as these kids who were terrorized by the adults who should have been more responsible in these situations. In many cases these managers would end up getting fired and doing jail time and I think this is absolutely appropriate for what they did, regardless of who they thought they were talking to on the phone.
The movie brilliantly captures the horror of this situation. Some of the more disturbing moments in the film were the minor, transitional scenes. Having the camera pan past people eating food and having a normal evening while less than a hundred feet away from them, a young girl is being subjected to the worst experience of her life. It was the moments when the manager was laughing and joking with the man on the phone, taking this situation as an opportunity to talk about her fiancé and the like. Or seeing fellow employees going about their normal routines, despite having a sense of what was happening just in the next room.
If you want an excuse to get angry, check out this film. Imagine how worse this situation could have gotten for this girl, had it not been finally the arrival of one person with his head screwed on straight, who asked a few basic questions and brought down the whole house of cards. Everyone walking this planet has the capacity to be good. Unfortunately they also have the capacity to do the wrong thing, even though they think there doing the right thing. And in the era we live in now, it’s maybe even a little more disturbing to watch.
There are too many people out there, intent on doing wrong.
Don’t hand over your trust too easily.