BACK in the early 1960s, the psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of social experiments to test the obedience of ordinary people when confronted with authority.
Director: Craig Zobel
Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy
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Placing a volunteer in a room with a man in a white lab coat, he observed that a startling number of said volunteers were willing to administer what they believed were electric shocks to another unseen (but still very audible) person just because someone they accepted was in charge had instructed them to do so.
The findings tapped into a fundamental flaw in human nature and have since been used to explore catastrophic errors in human judgment, from the “just following orders” complicity of ordinary Germans during the Holocaust to the culture of greed and irresponsibility that brought about the financial collapse.
Though it isn’t invoked by name, it’s hard not to think about the Milgram experiment when watching Compliance, an intentionally queasy little American indie film set in a busy fast food restaurant and revolving around an employee who is subjected to an increasingly humiliating and degrading line of questioning after being accused of stealing.
This happens when harassed, middle-aged franchise manager Sandra (Steven Soderbergh regular Ann Dowd) receives a phonecall from a man claiming to be a police officer investigating the alleged theft of a customer’s purse by a young, attractive member of her staff. The latter is Becky (Dreama Walker) – or at least, that’s who fits the general description Officer Daniels (played by Pat Healy) gives Sandra. Sandra is too preoccupied with supervising the busy Friday evening shift to realise that all of the specifics in this conversation are coming from her. Bringing Becky into the back room, Sandra agrees to search her belongings, and Becky, protesting but similarly intimidated by the authority in the caller’s voice, agrees to co-operate. When nothing is found, however, Officer Daniels convinces Sandra to take things further, asking her to conduct a strip search and keep Becky confined in the back room until he can get there.
Thenceforth things get really uncomfortable, although this is also the point at which it becomes natural to start questioning not just the film’s entire set-up, but also the plausibility of the responses to it. Indeed, while Compliance may offset such questions a little by revealing in the opening credits that the events depicted in the film are based on a true story (apparently a similar incident took place in a McDonald’s in 2004), from the safe distance of a cinema seat, it’s all too easy to sneer at the implausibility of a character too ignorant to realise that the police don’t conduct investigations over the phone (even in the movies). Indeed it’s perhaps a slight failing of the film that writer/director Craig Zobel doesn’t ever really attempt to keep us in the dark about the veracity of the caller.
Then again, that’s only a fault if you’re expecting a thriller. As the Milgram experiment has already demonstrated, it’s in our nature to sometimes crumple in the presence of authority, real or imagined, and, as such, the film quickly reveals itself to be more of a psychological horror film, one in which human behaviour at the bottom end of the corporate world is put under the microscope.
The results, inevitably, are not pretty, and Zobel and his cast deserve credit for teasing out subtle nuances that do, in retrospect, make the characters seem horribly human and tough to watch. Dowd is particularly impressive as Sandra, nailing the slight air of resentment that comes from being a fiftysomething woman just hanging on to a thankless job for a faceless corporation, a woman whose self-worth isn’t exactly enhanced by having to manage people 30 years younger than her who will never respect what she does.
Walker is good, too, as Becky. The way she plays the character as someone who reluctantly submits to ever more lurid indignities (which Zobel takes care to film without slipping into exploitation mode) suggests someone who has internalized a poisonous corporate culture in which standing up for oneself has been made to seem too difficult.
The incredibility of what transpires is also part of what makes Compliance so compelling in the end, and Zobel is canny enough to gradually intensify the level of discomfort to ensure the characters’ increasing irrationality feels honest in the situation, regardless of how out-of-whack it seems from a distance. He’s sensible enough as well to avoid providing the story with any clear-cut heroes – the staff members who question the situation don’t do it with any conviction, they slope off back to their shift instead of taking a stand. It’s an ugly, pitiable, withering view of a side of our nature we’d rather not confront. Alas, as the film’s everyday setting, not to mention the crime statistics presented in the coda suggest, it’s a side that is all too ready to reveal itself.
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