The yowls of indignation that erupted around a screening of Compliance at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year—the agitated complaints of rank voyeurism—now seem a little overheated. The picture is unsettling, and sitting through it is sometimes uncomfortable. But the question it raises—how can people be so easily manipulated by authority figures to perform vile acts against their fellow human beings?—has been contemplated before. The movie brings to mind the Nuremberg trials of top Nazis after World War II (in which “only following orders” was resoundingly disallowed as a defense) and the famous Milgram experiments of the early 1960s, in which volunteer subjects were directed to administer electrical jolts to an unseen person in another room, and continued to do so even as simulated howls of pain mounted.
The true story from which Compliance is drawn took place in 2004, at a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Kentucky. (We learn at the end that it was the last of more than 70 such incidents that occurred over the course of 10 years.) Here the location has been changed to a fictitious fast-food restaurant in small-town Ohio. It’s a busy place, managed by a flustery, middle-aged woman named Sandra (Ann Dowd). One day, in mid-shift, she receives a phone call from a man identifying himself as “Officer Daniels.” He tells Sandra that one of her employees has been accused of stealing money from a customer’s purse. He says the complainant is right there with him, and that he also has Sandra’s regional manager on another line. He gives a vague description of a young girl, and Sandra says it could be an employee named Becky. Officer Daniels tells Sandra to bring Becky (Dreama Walker) into her back office. After she does this, he tells Sandra to search Becky’s pockets. When Becky resists, he tells Sandra that the girl is actually part of a larger investigation, and that the reason he hasn’t sent a team of deputies over is because they’re all at Becky’s house, searching it for drugs.
In the midst of this, we cut to a suburban home, where we see a nondescript man in a living room talking on the phone. This is “Officer Daniels.” We watch him making a sandwich in his kitchen as he continues pressing Sandra in a firm but reasonable manner. He tells her that Becky must be stripped of her clothes. He tells her that this is okay because she is acting in his stead—and she’s doing well. He slyly establishes a first-name confidentiality (although he has directed Sandra to call him “Sir”). Soon he tells Sandra to bring in a man to “guard” Becky. When this man arrives, and Sandra leaves the naked Becky alone in the room with him, Officer Daniels, still on the phone, says, “I need you to describe her body.” From this point, an alarming ickiness sets in.
Even at 90 minutes, the movie feels padded. Shots are drawn out and scenes go on a little too long. But the picture has a calm neutrality that makes the unpleasant events we witness even more disturbing. Dowd, a veteran actor who has previously appeared in such films as Garden State and Flags of Our Fathers, is expert at conveying the docility of a low-level employee long accustomed to following orders; and Walker (of Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23) ably projects a minimally resistant malleability. (“When they told you to take your clothes off,” a real cop asks at the end, “was there a reason you didn’t say no?”)
In the movie, as in the actual incident, the principal participants all meekly bend to the will of an anonymous man whose only authority is that which he asserts. Even the girl called Becky here was drawn into complicity in her escalating abuse. Why did no one think to call the town police station—only half a mile away—on another line? Why did no one call this man’s bluff? Surely we would have. Surely we wouldn’t have been so obtusely acquiescent. Surely.