The first time people hear about Stanley Milgram’s experiments, they’re usually surprised at just what someone will do when directed by what they perceive as an authority figure. Milgram’s methods were creepy enough on their own — the standards of ethics for experiments involving human subjects had to be changed in their wake — but they got even creepier in the real-life case of a prank call scheme that played out from 1994 to 2004. And while the ideas of how people passively submit to authority are fascinating, Craig Zobel has brought them to the screen in the creepiest way possible in Compliance.
The film follows a fictionalized version of the final call, to a McDonald’s restaurant in Kentucky, here transformed to a “ChickWich” franchise. In the middle of an already stressed Friday the manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd), takes a call from a man identifying himself as “Officer Daniels” (Pat Healy) of the local police department. He claims to have eyewitness accounts of a young blonde woman working the counter stealing money from a customer’s purse. Sandra calls in Becky (Dreama Walker), who “Daniels” seems to be describing, and the ordeal begins.
I’m not going to go into the details of everything that ensues. Suffice to say that “Officer Daniels” is not who he claims to be, and that he orchestrates an incredible sequence of emotional and sexual abuses that last well into the night. And yes, it seems unbelievable that it works as well as it does, but like I said: the first time people run into Milgram-style compliance with authority it seems pretty unbelievable.
Sitting there in our comfortable theater seats, we can say we wouldn’t go along with it. We can say that we’d have lawyered up right away. We can say that we’d have asked for “Officer Daniels” to give his badge number and independently verified it, or called the regional manager he said he was working with on another line. We can say all sorts of things like that, but the fact is that if a man calls up and claims to be a police officer the usual response is to believe that he is, and that’s the thin end of this wedge.
I will give Zobel this credit: he has done his homework on how this sort of thing works. The lines that “Daniels” uses are chillingly appropriate. He cold-reads Becky’s name off of Sandra, then reinforces the idea that he had known it. He repeats his statements that “I am an officer of the law” and “I take full responsibility”; the first plays on social cues of power and dominance, and the second provides the excuse Sandra and others need to absolve themselves of their acts.
And yet, the film as it stands is repugnant. It’s one thing to say that people in the abstract will do horrible things when directed by a perceived authority figure, but this is not an abstract case illustrating a point. These things, in pretty much this order, happened to a specific young woman. The awkwardly tacked-on final ten or fifteen minutes rehashing and reenacting the actual fallout — the lawsuits and the television interviews — of the real case make it clear that this is intended to present the story of what happened to this particular victim for public consumption, as if she hasn’t been humiliated enough already.
But what makes it worse is the nature of the offense. The caller did not personally rape his victim, and yet we rightly feel that he has done her harm. First and foremost, he suborned her abuse, but what really makes his actions repulsive is his voyeurism. And film, we may forget, is inherently voyeuristic; in watching, we are all implicated in this woman’s humiliation. We may not have sought out anyone to perform these acts for our prurient interest, but we cannot consume them — even in a fictionalized form — and pretend our hands are spotless.
More than once I recalled Michael Haneke’s comments about his own film, Funny Games. Is Compliance, too, secretly a test which we pass by refusing to watch? Even if that’s not the intent, I applaud the impulse of those women who have walked out — unsurprisingly at the showing I attended all the walkouts were initiated by women — but I cast no personal aspersions on those who, like me, stayed through to the end. After all, we’re socialized not to walk out of movies just as we’re socialized to defer to authority.
And maybe Compliance will join Funny Games in the canon of important films which should not be watched. Haneke’s film, though, has the saving grace that its story was made up out of whole cloth in order to make his points.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: it pains me to say it, but it does pass.