The Chilling, Commanding 'Compliance'

Craig Zobel's thriller, based on a real-life incident, explores the dark side of the human impulse to obey.

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A pretty teenager is working her shift at the counter of a fast-food restaurant when her manager summons her: A man on the phone has introduced himself as Officer Daniels of the local police, and he says that a customer has credibly accused the girl of stealing money. The caller instructs the manager, Sandra, to take the employee, Becky, to a back office and search her belongings. When nothing is found, he tells Sandra to strip search the girl—it's either that, he warns, or Becky will be taken into custody and spend the night in jail. When Sandra has to go back to the counter to deal with customers, Officer Daniels tells her to call her fiancé to come guard the girl, still naked but for an all-too-small apron, until police can get to the restaurant to deal with the situation. Once the fiancé is alone with Becky, Officer Daniels demands an escalating series of intrusions—intrusions the fiancé conducts with varying measures of reluctance, confusion, and titillation.

Such is the plot of Craig Zobel's profoundly discomfiting film Compliance. And while the movie frequently strains credulity, it is in fact based closely on a genuine incident that took place in Mount Washington, Kentucky in 2004—one of several dozen related episodes that stretched back over the previous decade. (Those who are curious can find more about the cases here, though be forewarned that there are substantial "spoilers.")

Compliance tells its sordid tale in understated, almost-documentary style. Zobel does not wallow in the degradations imposed on Becky, but neither does his camera shy from them. The performances, too—in particular by Ann Dowd as Sandra and Dreama Walker as Becky—are subdued and persuasive, shorn of excess heat or theatricality. Zobel takes pains at the outset of the film to capture the rhythms and relationships of the restaurant, the hectic, just-do-as-you're-told atmosphere that the caller will later use to his advantage. And the call itself functions as a seminar on suasion, with Officer Daniels alternating between the application of threats ("You can go to jail or you can let this guy inspect you") and flattery ("You're almost like a real cop"). He has, as Sandra will note, an answer for every question.

Ultimately what is fascinating about Compliance is its suggestion of the near-universality, and ultimate mundanity, of the totalitarian reflex. When one watches a film that takes place in an actual totalitarian state—The Lives of Others, for instance, or 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days—it is easy to distance oneself from the events portrayed, blaming the system and the culture of capitulation on which it relies. Similarly, with a cult-indoctrination movie such as Martha Marcy May Marlene, one can assume that the victims were already damaged, and eager to surrender themselves to the will of another.

Compliance offers the more ominous thesis that, to varying degrees, we all share that impulse. The Mount Washington incident and its many related cases stand as a grim, real-world confirmation of the conclusions offered by Stanley Milgram and the Stanford prison experiment. Once accepted, authority is difficult to subsequently reject, and the exponential logic of submission quickly deforms jailer and jailed alike. Perhaps the most chilling line in Compliance is Becky's answer when she is asked why she went along with all of it, why she didn't simply refuse or call for help: "I just knew it was going to happen."