The best movies encourage audience reaction. “Compliance” forces it on them. In the seven months since Craig Zobel’s provocative psychological thriller had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, it has faced divisive reactions from viewers around the world. The story, about a fast food manager who is conned into thinking an anonymous caller is a police officer and follows directives to strip-search a young employee, naturally makes people uncomfortable. Some find the experience enlightening; others are wildly infuriated by the human behavior it presents. However, there’s always one constant: The crowd speaks up.
“Compliance” opens in New York this Friday, but already it has become the most energizing interactive theatrical experience since “The Room,” if for entirely different reasons. The opposite of camp, “Compliance” is designed to make you squirm and maybe even tick you off. Con artistry isn’t entirely fresh turf for Zobel, whose 2007 directorial debut “Great World of Sound” followed a pair of salesmen drawn into a pyramid scheme. But where the earlier movie exhibited a warmth toward its hopelessly naive protagonists, “Compliance” stays well away from it. Virtually everyone onscreen is responsible for the bad deeds that take place.
The movie presents itself as a question — not “could this happen?” but rather “how did this happen?” After announcing the film’s true-story basis in the opening credits, Zobel proceeds with his increasingly lurid tale by drawing from legal documents involving roughly 70 similar incidents around the U.S. that took place over the course of a decade beginning in the early ’90s. The unsettling pattern found a man calling a restaurant under the guise of a police officer, convincing a manager that an employee had stolen from a customer and coercing him or her to commit any number of physically invasive acts against the accused — coercion that in some cases culminated in sexual assault.
Zobel draws liberally from these occurrences to construct a fictional account of overworked blue-collar ChickWich manager Sandra (Ann Dowd, in perhaps the year’s eeriest turn), who is convinced by the raspy voice (Pat Healy) at the other end of a call to strip-search terrified young employee Becky (Dreama Walker). Trapped in the restaurant’s back room for much of the runtime, Becky is subjected to increasingly degrading behavior under Sandra’s nervous complicity, as her incapacity to question the motives of the caller nudge her from victim to enabler.
When I first saw “Compliance” in January, I found the performances and scenario riveting but grappled with whether the screenplay sufficiently conveys the process by which a seemingly disciplined and moralistic woman like the middle-aged Sandra could fall for such a transparently disgusting prank. A few viewings later, I’m still not sure if it succeeds, but that’s precisely the conundrum that “Compliance” continually encourages to remarkable effect.
It’s a shame that the initial case of audience outburst — when a female audience member at the Sundance premiere accused Zobel of misogyny for presenting Becky’s plight in uneasy details — failed to engage with the actual ideas onscreen. Not for a moment does “Compliance” sympathize with Becky’s experience, nor does it mold her treatment into the nightmarish extremes that horror films often portray as caricature. In those cases, good and evil tend to exist at two cleanly defined ends of the scale. “Compliance” operates under the assumption of certain objective standards for human behavior, then watches as they’re repeatedly violated. Nobody escapes unscathed, not even the victim. After all, why does Becky go along with these increasingly degrading orders?
There’s a specific reason why every discussion surrounding “Compliance” sounds like an ethics debate: When exploring the decisions of each character in “Compliance,” Zobel drew from the infamous Milgram experiment, a series of tests run by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram in the early 1960’s. (Watch a YouTube video of the experiments below.) Milgram placed test subjects in a room and asked them to quiz unseen “learners,” at which point the interrogators were told to administer increasingly powerful shocks whenever they received wrong answers.
While no shocks were actually administered, the test subjects believed they had the power to cause serious injury to the people in the other room. Nevertheless, despite many reservations, they largely went along with the directives of the test administrators, providing a chilling testament to the influence of authority figures on human behavior. “Compliance” follows the outcome of Milgram’s test to an exacting degree, as the restaurant employees react with varying degrees of skepticism in accordance with Milgram’s conclusions about his diverse set of subjects.
Of course, the Milgram experiment wasn’t the initial attempt to draw out these tendencies, although it may have been the first one to put them under the microscope in the wake of daunting questions that followed the rise and fall of the Third Reich. In that regard, “Compliance” is a brilliantly revisionist take on the Holocaust movie — though no one ever mentions the word “Holocaust,” it hangs over the proceedings in an allegorical shadow.
Before “Compliance” audiences look to history, however, they look to themselves. And that’s why the movie makes them feisty. Nearly everyone who sees it expresses a conviction that they would behave differently — by hanging up the phone, perhaps, or by asking the caller to verify his police credentials. The denial reached cartoonish heights following the movie’s European premiere at the Locarno Film Festival last week, when a British woman wondered if Sandra’s willingness to follow the caller’s orders was a distinctly American form of foolishness. (The German audience members remained silent for the Q&A, although a few approached Zobel privately after the screening.) Whether or not “Compliance” works in individual moments, it has an unprecedented impact on audiences willing to contemplate it.
Or, conversely, they flee. Walkouts have become a regular occurrence at “Compliance” screenings. At the New York City premiere hosted by the IFC Center Tuesday night, one woman loudly announced her disapproval to the room around the halfway mark. “Gimme a break!” she spouted before storming out, not realizing she was subjecting herself to a post-screening workshop. At the end of the movie, a panel moderated by Psychology Today editor-at-large Hara Estroff Marano elaborated on the movie’s conceits. Along with Zobel and Dowd, Marano was joined by practicing psychologists Nando Pelusi and Stanton Peele. Each panelist was clearly enlivened by the movie. Marano said that it “almost exactly recapitulates” the Milgram experiment, while Pelusi attributed Sandra’s behavior to “a subcortical experience”: “The confluence of effects caused her to submit.”
But when Peele asked the audience if they would behave similarly, the outbursts erupted with a consistency that lasted until the theater manager had to clear the room. Among the guests that night was longtime “60 Minutes” host Bob Simon, who took the high road. “I would’ve known that wasn’t a cop within a few minutes,” he insisted. A younger viewer chimed in. “I’m highly educated and wouldn’t have known,” he said.
The key reaction came from a woman at the back of the room. “It’s difficult for intelligent people to watch such unintelligent behavior,” she said. That made it official: “Compliance” digs out a universal superiority complex and forces it into battle mode. It’s a movie that feeds on collective emotions — anger, denial and, most of all, fear — but also triggers explosives along the faultlines of class.
While Magnolia Pictures will release “Compliance” in theaters around the country in the coming weeks, it has diverged from its typical VOD plan and won’t make the movie available on cable platforms until early next year. For the time being, if you want to see what all the fuss is about, you must go in for the group experience. The decision is a masterstroke, because “Compliance” is possibly the first movie to transform its viewers into an instant focus group.