The workers at a ChickWich franchise store in Ohio anticipate a harried night. The supply of bacon and tomatoes is low because one of the staff left the refrigerator open. A “secret shopper” — a spy from the home office — may stop by to conduct an undercover survey.
The manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd), is short of help, and her underlings face their jobs with the passive resistance of the bored stiff. And now there’s a call from some cop, Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), informing Sandra that one of her employees has stolen money from a customer’s purse. The suspect is blond, and 19 or 20. Probably a million young women at fast food joints fit that description; so does Becky (Dreama Walker) over at the cash register. When Sandra asks, “Becky?”, Daniels says yes.
For the next hour of Compliance, which an opening statement declares is “inspired by true events,” everyone at this ChickWich says yes in response to the orders barked or whispered into the phone: Go through Becky’s purse; confine her to the back office; tell her she can’t leave or she’ll go to jail. Strip-search her. The demands become more extreme, exploitative, criminal — yet Sandra, two other employees brought into the back room and, finally, Sandra’s boyfriend Van (Bill Camp) find it hard to resist the voice of authority. In a way, they’re Daniels’ deputies. And they’re only following orders.
Germans in the 1930s and ’40s weren’t the only decent people who did dreadful things because an authority figure told them to. Almost anyone is capable of being persuaded that some horrible tactic, at work or in personal relationships, is necessary for the greater good. Those were the findings of the experiments Stanley Milgram held at Yale in 1960: instructing subjects to inflicting an electric shock on an unseen person, and commanding them to keep increasing the voltage, no matter how much the person screamed in agony. More than 60% of those tested administered what they were told was the full 450 volts. The ”victims” were actors; there was no shock — except to the subjects when they finally learned the purpose of the experiment. The only possible variable: Not all the subjects may have truly believed they were inflicting pain. Some may have intuited the hoax.
In writer-director Craig Zobel’s “experiment,” the subjects can see their victim — a pretty coworker — and know they are harming her and demeaning themselves. The voice of the cop is by turns threatening and flattering, confidential and persuasive; it issues commands (“I need you to give her a spanking”) and empathetic rationalizations (“You think I like situations like this?”). His great coup is convincing Becky to submit (“You can go to jail, or you can let this guy inspect you”). Next thing, the naked young woman is bending over….
Another difference between Milgram’s and Zobel’s tests: here, the subjects are both on the screen and in the audience. Because the characters are borderline-believable and the filmmaking style all but invisible, accentuated by the ominous strings of Heather McIntosh’s score, Compliance is an ordeal for those watching no less than those performing. Many viewers at its Sundance Film Festival premiere felt so violated that they walked out, or stayed to boo the director and his stars. The movie dares spectators to stick around and, implicitly, become accessories to the crime.
Horror movies routinely do play this strategy: let audiences think they’re identifying with the hero/heroine/victim, when they’re really rooting for the psycho killer to keep raping and stabbing until the last five minutes, or maybe beyond. (There may be a sequel.) It’s Hollywood’s R-rated version of torture porn. On the art-house side, a filmmaker like Michael Haneke confronts this sado-voyeuristic impulse directly. Awful things happen, and we’re made to watch. It’s the implicit compact any moviegoer makes with what he’s about to see, only pushed to punishing levels. It’s also a man, usually, directing a woman, usually, to undergo psychic terrors. Alfred Hitchcock did that frequently; ask Tippi Hedren, his leading actress in The Birds and Marnie.
Haneke employed this method — trapping a decent couple in a home broken into by two sick thugs— in his 1997 German-language Funny Games, which he remade, shot for shot, in English in 2007 with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as rthe endangered couple and Michael Pitt as one of the nasty perps. Funny Games dared viewers to walk out in anger. (Halfway through the original movie’s world premiere in Cannes, I took the bait and bolted.) Haneke’s Caché, in 2005, played a game similar to the one in Compliance: a Paris couple (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) receive disquieting phone calls, as well as surveillance videos and threatening drawings, from someone who seems to know everything about them.
Craig Zobel means to be our own, homegrown Haneke. His first feature, Great Wall of Sound, cast Healy, the Compliance phone caller, as a con man who gets aspiring American Idols to invest $3,000 in a recording session they think will be sent to record companies. There the lie was a promise rather than a threat. But many of the aspirants in his movie were not actors; they were amateur singers who believed this was their one chance at stardom. (Zobel later obtained releases from the dupes.)
Compliance pushes the theory of ordinary folks following their foolish dreams or acceding to a stranger’s sick fantasies to its logical, misanthropic conclusion. In an interview with Daniel Schweiger of Buzzine, he recalled that in college a friend made a prank phone call imitating a campus security guard; the caller was sentenced to community service. Zobel’s new movie is the toxic version of that familiar story, springboarding from some 70 examples in 35 states of callers wheedling people into behavior they surely thought they’d never perform. Sandra’s explanation at the end: