*** SPOILER ALERT ***
*** NOT SUITED FOR YOUNGER AUDIENCES ***
Last night I saw a sneak preview of the independent film Compliance. It’s about a prank caller who pretends to be a police officer and convinces a fast food manager that one of her employees committed a crime. The caller then persuades the manager to strip search the employee, which leads to a series of lewd acts.
The film is based on a 70, real incidents spanning a decade and 30 states, which is certainly shocking and abhorrent. This is a great topic to explore the psychology of why the involved parties violated another human merely because a (perceived) authority figure instructed them to do so.
However, rather than build on the power of actual events, Compliance offers no insight into the matter and mistakenly confuses fact with drama.
The writer/director chose to make a narrative film, not a documentary. Fact doesn’t matter in film. Film, by its very nature of being a re-enactment, is fiction. Only relaying fact does not make a movie. Yet, you can still be true to the facts while taking enough creative license to frame the events in a reasonable way.
Compliance sets up the restaurant manager as being under stress this particular day because a secret shopper from corporate headquarters will be visiting the store. They all must perform admirably to make both the store and its leader look good. So when a man claiming to be a police officer calls the manager and claims that a cashier stole money from a customer, the manager complies with each of his increasingly illogical and offensive demands.
Granted, the acting was top notch in this film. Unfortunately, the best acting in the world cannot plug this many holes in a script.
Even in documentary, the filmmakers must offer an explanation for why people behaved as they did. Fiction is given more latitude in this arena by way of explaining character through behavior rather than exposition. As presented, however, the film certainly did not give enough reason or duress to warrant the events.
Why is this specific manager so compliant? Why are the other men so willing to harm this girl? Why is the girl willing to let this charade continue as long as it did? There was no gun pressed to their heads. There wasn’t even someone in the room standing over them; all the instruction happened over the phone. As a movie — thus, as fiction — a writer is allowed and obligated to speculate as to the answers.
Within the first 20 minutes, the film already lost me because the legal violations were perfectly clear:
- unlawful detainment
- illegal search and seizure
- impersonating a police officer (which I figured out before that information was revealed)
- improper police procedure
- no chain of evidence, etc.
This would later turn into kidnapping and rape, and we are supposed to believe that these ordinary people performed these acts because someone told them to do so, because “it’s either a strip search or go to jail,” because (later, when it turns into sexual assault) “she does not respect authority and must be punished.”
As an audience member, I was asking all the questions the characters should have been asking from the beginning.
What I’m seeing...it doesn’t make any sense.
It’s inspired by true events.
I don’t doubt that. But, as a movie, I don’t understand why these characters are behaving this way.
You saw the giant sign before the credits, right? “INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS.”
Yes. But. These people are dumb and illogical. Dumb and illogical people are not compelling in any situation.
Did we mention this movie is inspired by true events?
Fact is not necessarily truth. Accurate reportage is not the same as unfolding compelling drama. Merely relying on the factual existence of a story is insufficient.
The question is not whether real-life people could perform these deeds. The obvious answer is that they were, because it happened, which leans on the crutch of the above argument. The question in fiction is whether these specific characters are under sufficient duress to make their actions believable. I’d have to say this pressure was not established to lend authenticity to the narrative.
Movies based on fact are still movies. They must strive capture an audience’s attention so wholly that they are engrossed in the action before them. Only after the curtain falls should people say, “What a great movie. AND it actually happened.” They shouldn’t be saying every five minutes, “I know this is based on a true story…but COME ON. What’s wrong with these people?”
I continued watching in hope that the story would somehow salvage itself. It didn’t. The only rational voices in the entire movie were the cops and reporters at the end who said, “When they asked you to take off your clothes, why didn’t you just say no?” or “This happened more than once?!” They couldn’t believe it either.
Compliance would have made a compelling 60 Minutes episode or an insightful academic paper on how ordinary people perform awful acts when given orders by a person of (perceived) power.
The film’s problem is one of genre. The script did not live up to the much higher standards that fiction requires. Fiction must make sense, be believable, and be possible. Fact does not.
I can’t even remember the last time I was so angry after watching a film. Knowing that real people acted this stupidly is quite infuriating, but unlike the people in these circumstances, the filmmakers had time to fix the true events and mold them into proper drama. Motivation, as established through character, was lacking here.
When I returned home, this is the conversation that took place:
How was your day?
AWFUL. I was a captive audience for a movie that I wanted to stop watching after 20 minutes.
Relax. It was just a movie.
No. That’s my point. It wasn’t a movie. It made absolutely no sense!
Maybe you should have a drink.
Best idea all night.
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