In 1961, in response to questions about obedience and morality raised by the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram performed a series of experiments.
Volunteers were given the task of teaching an ostensible fellow volunteer (actually one of Milgram’s assistants) pairs of words, and told to administer what appeared to be escalating electric shocks in response to mistakes. When they demurred, the volunteers were commanded to continue by an authoritative member of the Yale team. Despite hearing what seemed like screams of pain from the other “participant”, raising objections and attempting to call a halt to proceedings, nearly two thirds of the volunteers complied fully with their instructions, and administered what they took to be a 450-volt electric shock to their partner.
The Milgram experiment, now a landmark in social psychology, revealed the extent to which our tendency to obey authority figures overrides morality and compassion. Compliance, a dark and provocative thriller from US director Craig Zobel, explores the same phenomenon.
The setting is a drab fast food restaurant in dreary small-town America. Manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) tries her best but is predominantly a figure of fun among the largely apathetic, teenage staff. One hectic day, when an improperly closed freezer door has left the outlet with a bacon and pickle crisis, Sandra receives a worrying phone call. The caller (Pat Healy) introduces himself as Officer Daniels and says that an employee has been seen stealing money from a customer’s purse. The (rather vague) description of the alleged thief matches 19-year-old Becky (Dreama Walker), who is hauled into the manager’s office where she flatly denies the theft.
Because things are similarly hectic at Officer Daniels’ end, he says he can’t yet send a car to bring Becky in, and so asks Sandra to quiz the suspect on his behalf. But from his initial, reasonable requests, such as checking Becky’s bag for the missing money, Daniels’ demands escalate into darker territory, and the scale of the proxy police investigation expands to encompass other staff members and even Sandra’s boyfriend. From being just a voice of authority on the end of the line, the movie then discloses more about “Officer” Daniels.
The impact of this intense, stomach-churning film is increased by the knowledge that it is closely based on a real-life incident, the perpetrator of which is still at large. Interspersed with the action are tone-setting shots of unappetizing fast food, which intensifies the nausea. To an outsider it seems preposterous that normal people could be persuaded to visit such levels of mistreatment on a colleague. However, with its close to real-time depiction of the incremental increases in abuse, the movie reveals the scenario to be sickeningly plausible.
Compliance is anchored by high-quality performances. Ann Down is particularly impressive as the jobsworth whose own social shortcomings make her easy prey to the cajoling, flattery and threats of a man in power, while Dreama Walker effects a believable transformation from sulky flirt to humiliated shell. Aside from the shots of the restaurant’s junk cuisine, which symbolizes the degraded state of a fast-food nation, the film doesn’t offer comment on the events it depicts. As such it leaves the viewer without answers, pondering the biggest question: what would I have done?
Director: Craig Zobel
Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy
On at: Noul Cinematograf al Regizorului Roman, Wednesday at 7pm