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This movie immediately reminded me of the 2007 “Stuck,” (which I reviewed here, and wrote that it belonged in a category of its own.)  Both are based on true stories you can hardly believe are true.  Moreover, both are about people who end up doing unbelievable things simply because they never seem to take a step back and ask if they’re doing what any normal person would do.  They think they’re acting perfectly reasonable given the circumstances, and meanwhile, we the audience are shocked at how bizarrely they’re acting.

In “Compliance,” the manager of a fast food restaurant gets a call from a man saying he’s a cop.  The cop says that someone has reported a theft by the pretty young blond working the register, and he asks the manager to detain her until he can get there.  When the manager complies, the cop asks her to search the employees’ belongings.  And then to do a strip search.  And then a cavity search.   Of course it’s not actually a cop on the phone, but a “prank” caller who has now persuaded someone he doesn’t know to commit sexual assault.

This is all based on a true story – in fact, not one true story, but something like 80 reported cases.  Where they all perpetuated by the same creep, or was it a nasty prank that caught on and got passed around?  The cops don’t know yet.  But it’s clear that this wasn’t a single isolated incident, one nasty uncaring fast food manager, but something that happened over and over, with different people, in different contexts.

And I think that’s what makes this an interesting, though definitely disturbing and uncomfortable, movie.  Director Craig Zobel handles touchy material very carefully – it’s clear that the last thing he wants is to make an exploitation flick where the audience is entertained and titillated by the increasingly degraded pretty blond locked in the back room.  He wants us to be horrified, and disgusted, and implicated.

That last one  is the hardest reach, and I’m not sure Zobel quite succeeds, but I’m glad he reaches for it anyway.  It’s easy (and somewhat appropriate) to blame the people involved, to say the gal should’ve known her rights and simply refused, or the manager should’ve known better, should’ve asked for better credentials from the police,  and should’ve drawn the line, insisting the policeman come down and get involved in person if he was wanting to take such extreme measures (even searching someone else’s belongings is crossing the line.)

But I’ve worked in fast food jobs, and even though I worked for a corporation that has a well-earned reputation for respecting its employees more than most, I know the atmosphere. I know that upper management seems both distant and demanding, and sometimes those demands feel degrading.  I know that questioning authority is encouraged on paper but frowned upon — seriously frowned upon — in the day-to-day operation of a business.  And I know that most people will do just about anything to keep from rocking the boat, especially in a down economy when you are easily replaceable and the prospect of losing your job is both real and terrifying.  You really question what hill you’re willing to die upon, and you find yourself doing things that violate your own personal sense of honor, integrity and morality before you even realize you’re doing it.

So I’m glad Zobel uses “Compliance” to turn an eye on this kind of job, this kind of worker, and ask — is there something wrong with the way these people are treated every day that is bubbling up in these horrifying cases?  It’s a great question, one we need to be asking as a society.   I think there is. I think “Compliance” puts it on display.

Verdict: Recommended, but not lightly.  This is not Friday night popcorn movie material.  Only watch it if you’re prepared to think about what happens in it, and why.

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