"I would never do that." That's what any normal person should say after watching 'Compliance.'
The film, a taut, stomach-turning 90 minutes that elicits nervous laughter, baffled sighing and instances of plain old embarrassment, is a tone poem on malignant social control. That it is based on a true story means one thing above all: know the location of the bar closest to the theater, because you're going to need a drink after this one.
When we first meet Sandra (Ann Dowd) she's already having a bad day. She's the manager of a fast food restaurant facing a weekend rush and she's woefully short on bacon. Plus, rumors abound that a secret shopper is coming. She needs to get her operation in order and her hourly wage staff lacks her sense of urgency.
The last thing she needs is a phone call from a police officer saying that one of her cashiers (Dreama Walker) has been stealing. The cop says he's out on another assignment, so he ostensibly deputizes her to lead an interrogation in a back room. Slowly, his demands become more and more strange until, no joke, the young girl is doing naked jumping jacks.
How? How in the world could anyone find themselves doing naked jumping jacks (and then far worse) in the back of a fast food joint? Because their manager says so? And because there's a voice on the other end of the phone claiming to be a cop? Nonsense, you say. Only complete morons would do such a thing. What 'Compliance' does is take you step by step down the rabbit hole. A combo meal of threats and accusations makes everyone obedient to authority and willful participants to actions they know is plain wrong.
Hold up a minute on that word "everyone." What 'Compliance' slyly does after relentlessly breaking you down to the point you question what you yourself would do in the same situation, is offer hints that maybe, just maybe, this isn't a universal condition. Maybe these people are just idiots.
According to director Craig Zobel the working title of 'Compliance' was 'Milgram.' If the name rings a buzzer from freshman psychology, Stanley Milgram was the social scientist who, after reading one too many reports where Germans in concentration camps claimed "we were just following orders," enacted a landmark study at Yale University. Ordinary folks were told they needed help with research on how pain affected learning, and were asked to zap people with electricity if they got a sampling of questions wrong. While no one actually got hurt, what the study proved was that, basically, everyone is horrible.
The chief takeaway is that if someone who appears to be in a position of authority tells you to do something, chances are you'll do it.
There have been a number of films that have tried to bring the essence of Milgram's experiment to the screen (one even had William Shatner!) but none have come close to what Zobel's 'Compliance' does. The primary success is that it doesn't feel like a sociology lecture - it works on its own as a movie.
With a minuscule budget and just a few sets, the tension in 'Compliance' never breaks. Like the fake cop on the other end of the line, the film slowly leads you into the abyss with a pretzel logic. The performances are all terrific (Pat Healy plays the prank) and the cross-cutting with the busy restaurant works wonderfully as a counterpoint to the cruel, theater-of-the-absurd scenario going on in back.
The realism is what's key. The specifics of the affected lives are mundane to the point of being comic, but that's what makes the struggles so relatable. From the safety of the audience we can condemn these characters all we want, but 'Compliance' offers a compelling case that we may not be quite so freethinking as we believe. Yes, I'll order the deluxe meal, if a man in a uniform is telling me to.
'Compliance' opens in select theaters on August 17.
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.