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Compliance (A Movie Review)




A few years ago, I read a news report which was a big story for a couple of days.  At a McDonald’s restaurant in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, the night manager got a call from a man claiming to be a police detective.  The man said that one of the counter girls had stolen money from a customer.  He claimed to be investigating from where he was and asked the manager to take the girl to the back room where they could interrogate her – essentially deputizing the manager to be his eyes and ears on the site.  The manager agreed and eventually complied with all of the supposed policeman’s suggestions despite the fact that the girl swore she was innocent and the manager felt uncomfortable with being in that position.  Still, as the inquiry progressed from simple questioning to strip searching to eventual sexual assault, the manager and others from the restaurant listened to this disembodied authority figure even though his story made little sense, often contradicted itself and they had no real proof that the man was indeed a policeman.

When I heard about Compliance, I assumed that it was based on that story, particularly since the film quite conspicuously advertises that it is “Inspired by true events.”  But the shocking thing is, according to an informational scrawl at the end of the movie, there have been more than 70 similar occurrences in 30 states over the past decade.

Compliance makes for uneasy viewing – famously quite a few people walked out of the Sundance screening of the movie last year – but it is also a chilling look at human nature.

As writer/director Craig Zobel points out in an interview on the DVD extras for the movie, the whole idea goes back to the 1960s behavioral experiments of Dr. Stanley Milgram of Yale University. 

Those experiments are described in Wikipedia: “The experiments began in July 1961, three months after the start of the trial of German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem.  Milgram devised his psychological study to answer the question: ‘Was it that Eichmann and his accomplices in the Holocaust had mutual intent, in at least with regard to the goals of the Holocaust?’  In other words, ‘Was there a mutual sense of morality among those involved?’  Milgram’s testing suggested that it could have been that the millions of accomplices were merely following orders, despite violating their deepest moral beliefs.  The experiments have been repeated many times, with consistent results within societies, but different percentages across the globe.“

So do we naturally concede to authority to such an extent that it can be used against us?  So that we would go against our personal beliefs and perhaps even hurt another person just because we are told to?

It’s a scary thought.  Most people would like to believe that is not the case, but it probably is much more than we would be willing to acknowledge.  And it is in that dichotomy that Compliance gets its power.  The audience tries to feel superior to the people who are responsible for the essential terrorizing of an innocent girl, but they recognize that it is something that could happen easily.

Compliance puts its cards on the table fairly early, outing the “cop” to the viewers about a third of the way through as a bored prank caller. 

The victim is Becky (Dreama Walker of Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23), a slightly shallow and boy-crazy suburban teen.  However, her shallowness does not excuse what happens to her.

Her manager is Sandra, a middle-aged lifer at the local ChickWich (a made-up chain) who is in the middle of a dead-end existence, has a relationship with a local worker who may or may not be a heavy drinker and may or may not be ready to ask her to marry him.  She tries unsuccessfully to straddle the line between boss and friend: the kids working for her don’t respect her as a boss and mock her personally.  It is Friday night, the busiest night of her week.  Her day had begun by finding out that someone forgot to close the freezer door and she is reamed out for allowing $1,500 of food to spoil, plus she has to go into her busy night without enough bacon, mayo or pickles.  She has also been hearing rumors that a “secret shopper” from corporate may be coming to dine incognito.

So the last thing she needs is a police officer calling her suggesting the girl at the counter is stealing.

As the evening escalates and goes in darker and darker directions, Compliance becomes harder and harder to watch, because it says some very scary things about human nature.  While we are all so certain that we would never act in the way these people do, can we really know if we have never been in a similar situation?

Compliance is thought-provoking and rather shocking.  People who see it will not watch passively, it pokes and prods its audience until a strong opinion is unavoidable, whether the viewer considers it trash or a masterpiece.  While I will not go quite so far as to call Compliance a masterpiece, it is haunting in a way that most movies never achieve. 

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2013 All rights reserved. Posted: January 19, 2013.

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