(Compliance is now available on DVD and Blu-ray through Magnolia Pictures. It opened theatrically on Friday, August 17, 2012, after world premiering in the NEXT section at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Visit the film’s official website to learn more. NOTE: This review was first published on January 30, 2012, in conjunction with the film’s screening at Sundance.)
In the early 1960s, Stanley Milgram, a psychology researcher at Yale, created a scenario in which volunteers, acting as ‘teachers,’ were told to administer increasingly large amounts of electro-shocks to ‘pupils’ who gave wrong answers. The pain of the shock was fully apparent to the ‘teachers’ yet when pushed by the administrator very few participants rejected the commands to inflict pain. The Milgram Experiment came out of Milgram’s interest in complicity in relation to the Holocaust.
In Craig Zobel’s new film, Compliance, his first since his dramatic look at the song sharking phenomenon in Great World of Sound, a well-documented widespread phone con is dramatized in painful incremental steps within a limited amount of time inside one location. The story of this con was so widespread, at one point I thought it was more of an urban myth, yet the reality is that these unfortunately real incidents were most successful when the victims were minimum wage employees and the business had a multi-tiered layer of middle managers below a single branch manager.
Drawn from actual court transcripts, the particular case in Compliance has a faceless ‘police officer’—i.e., a caller on a telephone (Pat Healy)—coercing Sandra (Ann Dowd), a middle-aged branch manager of a ChickWich restaurant, to strip search a low level young female employee, Becky (Dreama Walker), who the ‘cop’ says has stolen money from a customer. The torture escalates as the officer tells several different employees—in this case, all men—to subject the ‘suspect’ to escalating degrees of sexual assault. The question at first becomes: how far will this go? However, it isn’t long before it turns into a wrench: when will this end?
At one point midway through the film, Sandra calls in a young male employee, Kevin (Philip Ettinger), to stand watch over a naked Becky. Kevin is suspicious of the whole ordeal, but he is immediately overruled by the branch manager who says, “Corporate always wants two in the room for a strip search.” A line which made me laugh out loud, not because of its literal absurdity, but because of my recognition and memory of the many former authority figures in my life who tried to get me to do something by referencing a faceless, distant, all-knowing power overseeing our every move. From priests to coaches to countless other petty branch managers, it’s a line used by many to try and get the lowly to comply with a demand.
In this particular scenario, the guilt regarding compliance goes both ways. As was demonstrated at the Nuremberg trials and at countless war tribunals, a simple respect of authority is no excuse for the execution of an inherently wrong and immoral act. In Compliance, we see a laser-like precision in the dramatization of how these individuals’ incremental relinquishing of personal responsibility leads to the eventual apocalyptic violent event. Whether it’s the slaughter of a whole village, or the administration of a shock, or the assertion of an opinion (“our leader says you are wrong and we are right”), any situation in which an individual forgoes his own personal responsibility is laying the basis for how a society and a culture can perform evil acts upon helpless victims.
Compliance is essentially a docudrama, but it moves with such analytical drive that it more closely resembles a police procedural. In this case, however, rather than watching how a crime is solved, we are watching a crime being committed as well as, through Zobel’s crafty writing and direction, an analysis of how that crime came to be and why it was committed. It’s a deceptively simple film, and both the lazy and the prickly, easily offended viewer will seek ways to escape the experience, either through accusations of misogyny or simply through the false interpretation that it has no other objective except to titillate and exploit.
This film should be required viewing; not only for all young police and soldier recruits, but we all need to be reminded of the manifest power of authority to activate individuals to either justify violence (i.e., “Iraq needed to be invaded in order to make the world safer”) or to get them to remain unconcerned or passive. I love how the whole incident comes to a crashing halt through the skeptical, resistant reaction of the long grey-haired custodian curmudgeon. Thank god there was at least one disrespectful outsider present who was able to stop the machine in its tracks just by saying, No, this is wrong and I won’t do it.
Compliance is also a cautionary tale that shows how authority can allow or encourage the inherently darker impulses in many to become manifest. It’s a two-way street and there may be many reasons why some people allow themselves to be more complicit than others. Either way, Zobel’s astonishing film should make all viewers aware of the need to constantly remind oneself that society has many crafty and ingrained methods to trigger your possible secret urge to relinquish your individual responsibility. Viewer beware: Compliance is about way more than just a simple depiction of a sexual assault.
— Mike S. Ryan