Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Compliance Movie Review

In the early 1960’s Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment that had subjects administering what they believed were electric shocks to a third party at the behest of an authority figure in a lab coat. It was ostensibly an attempt to discover if millions of people throughout Europe who aided in committing the atrocities of the Holocaust could actually have simply been following orders that conflicted with their own sense of morality. What is a human’s natural response to a person in a authority and how far would we go before standing up to such a person? Milgram’s findings, which were later confirmed in further studies in different parts of the world, were troubling and revealed a side of human nature that should make most people uncomfortable. It turned out a large majority of the subjects were willing and ready to cause bodily harm to another person because they were told to do so.


Over a period of many years, in many different parts of the country, people working in restaurants – usually fast food establishments – were subjected to so-called prank phone calls from a man impersonating a police officer. The caller asked a manager or supervisor on duty to keep a female employee in the office after making an accusation of theft. The caller would eventually get the manager to strip search the employee and in many cases lewd acts or sex acts were the end result.

These cases generally serve as the inspiration for Craig Zobel’s film Compliance, which premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. One case in particular, involving a McDonald’s in Kentucky, is the primary basis for the story. If you read about that case and watch the YouTube videos of the “Dateline” episode that featured interviews with the real life victims (both the girl involved and her manager) you’ll find some details recreated almost exactingly in Zobel’s screenplay, right down to a question the Dateline interviewer asks the manager to which her off-camera attorney advises not to respond. It is a remarkable and bizarre case and movie to behold. Some of the developments struck me as unbelievable to the point of absurdity because I had not yet read about the actual events. I’ll be the first to strike down an argument in favor of a movie being good on the basis that it’s “what happened in real life.” To the extent that some things don’t work in Compliance, it’s the product of having to excise some material in the interest of time, pacing, and avoiding being labeled exploitative.

The film functions as an effective thriller. A young pretty girl named Becky (Dreama Walker) is brought into a back office by her boss, Sandra (Ann Dowd), who is responding to someone she believes is a police officer. Through the first part of the ordeal we only hear the caller’s voice. If you know the premise ahead of time, you know it’s a hoax. Not knowing anything about it, you might catch yourself thinking it’s one of the oddest ways to conduct police business. The question is why didn’t Sandra ever think of that? As the caller continues to flatter Sandra and cause Becky to be ever more submissive, the stakes keep getting raised until finally she’s left naked, covered only by an apron. Things only get worse when the caller insists on having a man watch her while Sandra tends to business in the restaurant. After a young male staff member refuses what the caller asks, Sandra calls in her fiancé Van (Bill Camp). This is one of the best assemblages of not very well-known actors. The performances are top notch and Dowd was even awarded Best Supporting Actress from both the National Board of Review and the Broadcast Film Critics.

I would not be surprised to learn that the person – or people – who committed these offenses, was familiar with Milgram. Surely Zobel is and that’s where his interest in this film lies. This is not a movie just about some terrible things that happen to a young woman at her job. It’s about all of us. It’s about the monotony of work and the expectation, especially when you’re a teenager, that you do what you’re told. Zobel’s creation of the caller (Pat Healy) comes across as a master of psychology. By insisting that Becky address him as ‘officer’ or ‘sir’, he puts himself in the position of perceived authority. By having Van punish Becky with a spanking – yes, it’s that incredible – for being disobedient, he gives Van a sense of power that will make it easier for him to continue being the abuse surrogate. At that point, Becky is already so broken she’ll do almost anything.

Zobel has created one of the most discomfiting experiences and committed it to film. It’s not easy to watch and you’ll find yourself constantly angry with these people for believing what is so obviously a ridiculous ruse. There will be many out there who insist that they would never fall for this, that they would handle it differently. Maybe that’s true. Maybe you wouldn’t fall for it. But most people would and would carry the instructions through to a certain point, perhaps not everyone would bring in a strange man to the office to keep an eye on a naked girl. Then again, not everyone in Milgram’s experiment was willing to keep turning that electric dial up higher and higher. Some stopped when it became to unbearable, but almost everyone administered some pain.

The truth is no one knows for sure how they would handle this just by observing from the outside. When you’re in a position of thinking you’re speaking to a cop, who knows what you will and won’t do? And poor Becky, the distraught victim, spends the first part of the movie believing she’s choosing between a strip search and a night in jail. She knows she has nothing to hide. When you’re convinced those are your only options, which would you choose? From there it’s not a giant leap to the next phase.

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