An unsettling new film explores the dark side of "just following orders."


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.

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  1. Oh, boy. Loder forgot to see The Expendables 2?

    1. If you like action go see it.
      It is like Rambo 4 + Expendables 1.

      1. Sooo, Expendambo 5?

  2. 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.

    I bet most of the people here would have called his bluff. And don’t call me Shirley.

    1. I deal with overreaching cops pretty regularly. I couldn’t tell you how many bluffs I’ve called. Of course, I get to arm-wave about federal regulations, which are much more impressive to cops than mere Constitutional rights.

    2. Well I think there’s a reason he called fast food places and not a professional office.

      Some people’s brains really are mush.

    3. I can guarantee with 100% certainty I would have called his bluff. I am amazed that this is actually based on a real incident.

      1. Really? Have you noticed our choices for president recently?

  3. The Law Order episode of this incident was more compelling.

    1. And it had Robin Williams as the insane prankster!

  4. 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?

    This isn’t even the right question, because it strongly implies that if the guy on the other end of the line had actually been a cop, this would have been OK.

    It doesn’t matter if the guy on the other end of the line was a cop or not.

    The proper answer to this request, coming from a cop, would be, “Fuck you, pig, I ain’t your fucking deputy, and I’m not assisting you in a fucking search.”

    1. Oh yeah, that’ll work. Most cops will back right down if you stand up to them. They’re especially intimidated by vulgar insults.

  5. So, the movie is subtitled in English from Spanish as it takes place at a fast-food joint, correct?

  6. So Sundance screens sadist porn?

  7. It’s always the Nazis that are used as the epitome evil. Communists, over the past 100 years, have caused far more human misery and death than any other group or ideology, yet they continually get a free pass.

    Hitler was chump change?a wussy?compared to the Communists. Is it so difficult to use Stalin, or Pol Pot or Abimael Guzm?n or Mao or Ceau?escu? (Must I go on?)

    1. With the Nazi’s if you were a Joo, or gypsey you were dead no matter what. If you were a slave you were just about fucked no matter what.

      Yes, the communists killed more people, but they also had a whole century to do their ‘work.’ Think of them as equal opportunity motherfuckers. With the Communists if you joined them you could live.

      1. “if you joined them you could live.”

        Wrong. The Communists were just as doctrinaire about murder as the Nazis, but they targeted social classes rather than races. At least in theory. In both regimes the practice was that some local bully-boy/bureaucrats decided whether to liquidate you right now of wait until later. In practical terms the difference between the Nazis and the Communists is that the Communists duped the Western Intellectual Classes into running interference for them for a long, long time. All other differences are purely cosmetic.

  8. This sort of one-off asshole with a badge just needs to be thrown in a hole and forgot about. This isn’t the kind of institutionalized abuse of power that’s plaguing our society today. A movie with this title should be a three hour documentary on TSA, requests for phone records, and the like.

    1. Perhaps you missed the point.
      Check the title.

      1. Compliance

        Right on point. Perhaps you missed my point?

  9. He didn’t have a badge. He was just some dude on the phone. I remember when this happened.

    1. Check. He’s still just one creepy guy.

      The compliant supervisor is more troubling precisely because her behavior is not uncommon. Capitulation to authority is ubiquitous, not just at the fast food manager level, but right up to ATT handing over your phone records anytime DHS asks for them. That’s what keeps me awake at night.

  10. I’ll wait for the XXX knockoff from Vivid Video.

  11. “Sir, I’m afraid I’m going to have to see some kind of written authority spelling out on what legals basis you want me to act before I can cooperate. While you get that in order, why don’t I call the local F.B.I. office? Because it sounds to me like you want me to massively violate an employee’s civil rights, and it seems like it would save a lot of time if we got the feds involved in investigating your operation right now.”

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