I’ve just seen a movie called Compliance. I discovered it while browsing the new release DVD shelves on my way to get bread and milk and, thinking it had an intriguing premise, I added it to my Netflix queue. Then, I heard an interview with Pat Healy (who acts in the film) speaking of the movie and its controversial nature. My intrigue escalated and I streamed the film later that night.
The premise is frighteningly simple. A humble and mildly neurotic supervisor at a small, rural fast food restaurant receives a phone call from someone claiming to be a police officer. This person on the phone claims that an employee stole money from a customer and proceeds to guide this severely compliant supervisor (cue the film’s title) through a series of procedures that violate the helpless employee’s dignity and humanity, eventually resulting in a crime of sexual assault.
I should warn potential viewers that I don’t believe the film was designed to be entertaining in the delightful sense of the word (it certainly doesn’t want the viewer to enjoy what they’re witnessing). But there’s something to be said for works of art—in all mediums, but particularly films—which challenge us to take another look at ourselves and our weaknesses.
The film is brilliantly executed, but it’s extremely uncomfortable and it should be. It’s handled delicately enough that it can’t be dismissed as pornographic, yet it’s handled realistically enough that it can’t be dismissed as overly sensational. It’s simply a very believable portrayal of an utterly unbelievable story.
Yet, it was based on actual events. 70 similar events to be precise.
This movie disturbed and unsettled me to say the least. I’m also very glad that I saw it, even though I would not recommend it at all for sensitive viewers. The film excellently illustrates a terrifying trend in human interaction which disturbs me greatly, particularly when I relate the trend to my faith and those who share it.
Compliance has a great deal to say about authority and about the dangers of blindly submitting to authority. One aspect of this which really stood out to me is how willing Sandra (the supervisor at the restaurant) is to regard the faceless voice on the other end of the phone as an authority figure. Now, I strongly believe in the respect of and submission to authority. However, a large part of submitting to authority in a healthy way comes with recognizing genuine authority where it exists.
G. K. Chesterton wrote an absolutely brilliant book over a hundred years ago called “What’s Wrong with the World” in which he makes more good points than I can count, but probably the best observation of the book was this: “What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.” He means that we cannot recognize what is wrong with anything without recognizing how that same thing is supposed to be. A physician’s chief aim is not to invent a better version of the human body, but rather to restore every human body he or she encounters to its ideal physical condition. And physicians can only do their job well if they have a solid understanding of what a healthy body is supposed to be.
What I find so fascinating about Compliance and the human frailties that it illustrates is the tendency we have to elevate certain voices to positions of authority, while pulling down established voices of authority with distrust and skepticism. Many will argue violently the perspective of a news report or internet blog they’ve encountered and stand upon that source as authoritative while steadily losing trust and respect for political officials, police officers, bosses, etc. In the film, Sandra never calls her regional manager to verify what she’s hearing (which would have been a proper submission to authority), but rather she simply accepts the word of the voice on the phone that such authority exists.
It is fascinating to me how so many people can be so wildly suspicious of authority while simultaneously being so blindly compliant under intimidation or threats of retribution. But it isn’t quite as shocking when we begin to realize in what little esteem we regard our current authority figures. I am immensely grateful to live in a nation where authority can be challenged openly, but when we criticize and ridicule our leaders and civil servants with impunity (often for personal traits which have precious little to do with their actual position), we cripple our own positions and opinions in the process. In essence what we do by not respecting authority is place ourselves in weaker standing to be threatened and intimidated by those who would pose as false authority.
Now, it is worth admitting that many people in authoritative positions that I’ve referenced have abused their power for personal gain. But almost more dangerous than the abuse of power is to attribute power and authority to places where it does not belong. We should absolutely hold our leaders and authority figures in all venues accountable, but we should take care that in doing so we don’t accidentally crown a worse authority figure in its place: namely ourselves.
We place authority these days on the voices and opinions which most closely resemble our own, rather than on the establishment of an authoritative position. This basically means that we have now elevated our own opinions as the highest possible authority in most debates and this is severely dangerous. It seems that the only virtue consistently exalted in our cultural climate is to “be true to ourselves.” This perspective, while healthy in its proper context, is mostly dangerous because the more focused we become on ourselves and our own infallibility, the less aware we are of the value we hold to the world around us and the vital role others play in our lives.
This pattern leaves us with a multitude of opinions on how the world should be and almost no influence to enact change to it. Specifically this pattern disturbs me when I see it among certain Christians, who seem to regard the paranoia and emotional violence of some religious voices as somehow more authentic than the hope and good news expressed by Jesus himself. In certain hands the words of the Bible won’t be an instrument of healing and reconciliation, but one of further wounding and torment because it is used apart from the context of the authority which first presented it (which, to be quick about it, is to reconcile the world back to the God who created it).
When authority needs to be challenged, we most effectively do so by acknowledging true authority. In the case of the film Compliance, the deplorable situation is only concluded when a co-worker recognizes that the voice on the other end of the phone is asking things (as he puts it) “that aren’t policeman-ly.” He understood that what was being asked wasn’t within the realm of authority for police to demand and that’s how he was able to expose the cruel prank.
In the film, the character of Sandra believes she is speaking to a police officer for no other reason than that he is very convincing and persuasive while posing as a police officer. Sadly, she is fooled by intimidation and clever verbal tip-toeing. And by positioning authority to a faceless voice and an unfounded set of demands, she loses all sense of her responsibility to Becky, her co-worker. In doing so, she does what any of us might be capable of doing when we lose sight of true authority: we undermine any authority we ourselves might have had and position ourselves as gullible fools.
My hope is that we would all learn the value and strength of recognizing authority in our lives that we may more effectively hold that authority accountable and produce effective change where it is needed. But we can’t do this until we stop blindly submitting to the voices posing as authority simply because of intimidation or outrage. There is a profound difference between a movement of people with conviction for a cause and an angry mob with torches and pitchforks. And there is an even greater difference between the faceless voices of those who, by posing as authority, would expose and abuse others and those who are given authority to protect and to serve.