Review: 'Compliance', starring Dreama Walker and Ann Dowd
Ever heard of the Milgram experiments? Without getting too deep into the weeds of it, the basic idea was to discover what lengths people would go when given orders from a perceived superior. In Milgram's case, he had people applying presumed electric shocks to unseen subjects for giving incorrect answers to questions, with the voltage increasing each time. While some refused to administer the painful shocks after awhile, all too many continued on at the doctor's urging, even as the voltage reached the point where it could be heard causing severe physical damage. How could anyone let themselves be used like that? Why didn't they just refuse? How far would they have taken it? Compliance, the deeply unsettling and unforgettable film from writer/director Craig Zobel, examines those questions and comes up with some disturbing answers.
As incredible as it may seem, Milgram's experiment has been the basis for over 70 documented pranks, with many resulting in physical and sexual abuse. Compliance takes place in a generic Chickwich fast food joint in Ohio, during the course of a busy Friday dinner rush that will be memorable for more than just selling a lot of french fries. Sandra(Ann Dowd) is already in a testy mood, so when the day begins with a freezer malfunction that costs them thousands of dollars in product, she's none too happy. It doesn't help that the the bulk of her staff are much younger, less responsible, and don't really perceive her as a figure to be respected. In particular, Sandra seems to have an issue with the pretty blond cashier, Becky(Dreama Walker), who has multiple boyfriends and an attitude.
An already hectic night takes a dark turn when Sandra receives a phone call from an Officer Daniels(Pat Healy), who claims to be a cop who has a woman with him that says Becky stole some money from her purse mere moments ago. The situation could be easily diffused in moments, but when the officer claims to have the regional manager on the line, Sandra's only too eager to please. After having Becky brought into the back room, he instructs Sandra to perform rather intrusive strip searches of a slowly escalating nature. Any attempt to question his motives is met with harsh criticism and charges of obstruction, while Daniels is quick to heap praise whenever his commands are successfully followed through. As the night gets busier, the situation only grows deeper and more insidious, as other employees and even Sandra's fiance are drawn into the nastiness. Becky's claims of innocence fall on deaf ears as Daniels continues to assert his influence over everyone involved, without even being in the room.
The inclination is to look down on these people as fools of the highest order, and at first the whole thing may seem utterly ridiculous. But Zobel and his remarkable cast do such a fantastic job of putting the viewer right there in that back room with them. What would any of us do in that situation? Would we be willing to defy the law and put ourselves in jeopardy for someone who might or might not be innocent? Would we compromise our own morals under some broken notion of law and order? The thought of people blindly following the commands of a mysterious voice over the phone has been explored in movies before, such as in the Colin Farrell thriller, Phone Booth, but what makes Zobel's film all the more horrifying is the detached nature in which he presents it. There are no theatrics, no explosions of violence or anger. It's just a cold and clinical presentation and that makes it all the more chilling. If you've seen the reports or read descriptions of the actual 2003 event in which this film is based, then it's obvious just how close Zobel stuck to the details. If that doesn't keep you awake at night or cause you to lose a little bit of faith in humanity, what in the world will?
Compliance is a tough movie to sit through, but that's really sort of the point. It's not supposed to be easy. Nor should it be. While Compliance may not be the sort of movie you want to experience multiple times, everyone MUST go out and see it at least once.