Monday, December 21, 2015

Just Following Orders

During my freshman year of college, I took an introduction to psychology class and received the worst grade of my university career (B-, because I'm a NERD). Aside from crushing my self-esteem, this course instilled in me a very, very important rule to live by: 

Never be the subject that proves a terrible truth about humanity.

This class involved watching a few videos about the infamous Milgram experiments and what they might say about our tendency to accept sheep status when a leader has taken control. One of the videos followed a lesser-known and far more relatable study than the "how many electric shocks would you issue if someone in a lab coat told you to?" In this case, two people (one a control and the other the unknowing subject) were led into a room to take a written test. Just outside the door, they passed a man doing maintenance work while standing on a ladder. They were instructed to sit down, write their answers, and not to leave the room or speak with one another until the time was up.
Ten minutes into their "exam," there is a loud sound as if the man on the ladder has fallen and is moaning in pain. The control continues to take the test, making no effort to investigate. The subject seems conflicted, but ultimately follows the lead of the control and continues on course despite the screams coming just outside the door. When the same experiment is run without the control, the subject usually breaks the "rules" and checks on the individual outside.
Rorschach had his Kitty Genovese and I have this educational video to keep me in line when it comes to hive minding. I'm sure I can still be duped into submitting to authority despite my own instincts, but I try to be conscious of what I think is right if it doesn't seem to match instructions. Or maybe I just always make a point of checking on someone if I hear a crash.

My point with this rather overlong intro is not that I'm anywhere close to being a psychology expert (remember: B-) but that it's easy--so easy--to do what we're told without any kind of introspection. Today's film is about such a case, and while it's a horrifying extreme, it also really happened, and could potentially happen to all of us.

Let's see if they start showing this in intro psychology classrooms.

Quick Plot: Sarah is the manager at a ChickWich, a fast food joint filled with your typical fry grease and unmotivated minimum wage employees. Just before her Friday night shift gets busy, she receives a phone call from a policeman named Officer Daniels informing her that Becky, the pretty young cashier, has been caught stealing money from a customer's purse. Because there's more to this case than petty theft, Sarah is advised to bring Becky to the backroom and keep her in holding until the matter can be resolved.

It doesn't exactly end there. Daniels convinces Sarah that finding the stolen money will make things easier all around, leading to a strip search and confiscation of Becky's clothing. As the restaurant gets busier and busier, Sarah is forced to bring in her almost-fiance Van to help supervise Becky, something made more than a little uncomfortable by the fact that Van may have had a few beers on the way. Daniels asks a little more of Van. Since Becky fears Daniels is mounting a bigger case against her brother (who was casually mentioned on the phone call), she continues to comply with the increasingly odd demands.

Written and directed by Craig Zobel, Compliance is very closely taken from a real event that occurred in a Kentucky McDonald's a few years back (you might even remember the Law & Order: SVU episode on it, wherein Robin Williams advised 30 Rock's Pete to do some very bad things). As much as I typically cringe at an "inspired by real events" tagline, it's actually vital in this case because otherwise, it would be so easy for the audience to judge the characters and wonder why they're so accepting of the situation. It's not really any kind of a spoiler to say that Officer Daniels is no cop, that Becky never stole any money, and that Sarah is not about to be named employee of the month.

Daniels (played by the wonderful Pat Healy) is a master manipulator, and while his targets aren't necessarily the sharpest tools in the burger industry, it's completely believable to see them buy his persona without too much questioning. When you know the truth, it's easy to realize that he never names names or gives any real specifics. But every fast food joint has a 19ish year old working the counter, and if you ask her about a family member that might have trouble with the law, there's a good chance that every 19ish year old will have one of those too. That middle-aged restaurant manager will of course be incredibly cooperative if she thinks she's speaking to a policeman with her regional manager on the other line. We're eager to please those in charge. It's human nature.

Compliance is a horror movie, one that will make you cringe. It's also an incredibly important reminder that doing the right thing isn't always the same as doing what we're told. You won't feel good watching it.

High Points
There's such a mastery in Daniels' manipulation of the situation, but it's most horrific in how he's able to immediately shut Becky's protestations down and continuously make her feel small. The worst thing you can ever say to a woman is "calm down" when she's not actually overreacting, and the writing and performances so perfectly nail how such an instruction would work

I'm not in any way the first person to say this, but Ann Dowd's performance as Sarah is so achingly real that it goes a long way in making Compliance work as well as it does

Low Points
The last ten minutes or so deal a little with the aftermath, and while Sarah's arc continues to be fascinating, it feels as though the film stalls a bit in understanding how Becky has come to process the experience

Lessons Learned
You're fucked without bacon

Skinnies don't have pockets
Always check your minutes before using that calling card

Compliance is an incredibly uncomfortable film to sit through. Much like a similarly morally muddy indie gem Scalene, it presents its case and characters with such a believable realness that the entire experience is that much harder to take. This is definitely worth seeing (and is currently streaming on Instant Watch) but remember that it's not an easy ride. 


  1. I watched this a while back. I have to agree that the central performances were stellar and captivating but I had a hard time getting into the movie. Especially when the
    [SPOILER?](*sigh* predictable) sexual degredation of Becky[SPOILER/]
    began without anyone questioning the methods of the "policeman" the movie totally lost me. I mean, this was not "not the sharpest tools in the shed" anymore, those people were beyond brain-dead.
    The only believable character was the young male co-worker who didn't fall for Healy's shit.
    The fact that this actually happened and more than once (he obviously was a serial caller) makes me questioning mankind's dominance.

    1. See, I would love to believe that it wasn't believable, but based on everything I've read, Compliance follows the case TO A T. It's horrifying! And I think that the real degradation was believable for me because by the time Van shows up, he's clearly just drunk enough not to question it.

  2. Was that Law and Order episode the one where Robin Williams starts a cult against 'sheeple', tortures a garage door, and jumps into a lake? I may have seen it, back when it first aired.