I had heard “Compliance” was controversial. Now I realize that reaction is just an indication that most moviegoers don’t know their classic psychological and sociological studies like they should. Craig Zobel’s tightly wrought procedural of people in a tense situation following authority illogically into depravity is merely a modern illustration of a 1960s study by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram.
Milgram was curious to investigate the effects of authority and the limits of obedience. He changed a few variables, but the results were pretty consistent: people pretty much obeyed what the person in charge of the situation said.
The experiment involved administering a shock to someone who missed answers to questions (obviously a simulation for ethical reasons), and in some of the trials, the person being shocked would cry out to stop the shocks or bang against the wall. Merely by saying “you must proceed,” the person administering the shock continued in spite of their nagging qualms about the morality of their decision.
You can’t just write off the actions of the people in “Compliance” as fictional, they aren’t. Nor can you comfort yourself by believing it to be an isolated incident; Zobel flashes a title card before you walk away informing you of 70 other “Compliance”-like incidents happening across the country.
And now that I’ve told you about the Milgram Experiment, you can’t just write these people off as just being too idiotic to disobey. (Although for a good chunk of the movie, the characters are so blatantly moronic that it’s easy to lose sympathy for them.) Just because these people work at a ChickWich, a fast-food restaurant that appears to be on the level of Long John Silver’s, doesn’t mean their stupidity is the reason they allow a remote authority figure to dictate to them that they can commit grossly immoral acts against Becky, a cashier accused of pilfering from a customer.
Zobel slowly but surely peels back the layers of civilization until he reaches total debasement. The characterization might be weak, but “Compliance” is about something bigger than just people. It’s about a culture that conditions us to obey whoever is barking orders at us, no matter how sick they might be. He cleverly uses the character of Sandra, played marvelously by Ann Dowd, to grapple with the after-effects of such a shocking revelation of our basic nature. The effect: it’s impossible to be a complicit member of the audience – or you sure as heck can’t leave without feeling guilty about it. B /