“Compliance” emerged from this year’s Sundance Film Festival with buzz generated less by the film’s quality (though the consensus is that it’s quite a good film) than by its controversial subject matter. The film is unabashedly polarizing and challenging, as it delves into the depths of the cruelty that well-meaning people can exact on others when the right psychological pressure points are activated. Upon leaving a screening Tuesday night, I felt compelled to discuss the questions posed in the film with anyone who would listen, yet I hesitated before offering my recommendation to see it because I knew I was encouraging a very difficult viewing experience. Whether the end result was fury, sadness, curiosity or frustration, the film moved everyone in the audience.
The screening, which took place at the IFC Center in Manhattan, was accompanied by a Q&A session after the film with writer-director Craig Zobel, lead actress Ann Dowd and two notable psychologists. The Q&A was moderated by Psychology Today editor-at-large Hara Estroff Manaro. Before the film started, Zobel took the mic and informed the audience that he took on this story to start a discussion, though he felt he had more questions than answers to offer.
As critics have noted, it is a challenge to delve into a discussion about the film without revealing critical plot points. Nevertheless, Todd Gilchrist in his review for The Playlist stated accurately that knowing the premise of the film might actually aid the viewing experience, “because the behavior of the characters is so shocking and contemptible that it seems necessary to accept that inevitability before it even starts.” A manager of a fast food restaurant, Sandra (played by Dowd) receives a phone call from a man claiming to be a police officer. He accuses one of her employees of stealing from a customer and asks Sandra to cooperate with him in the “investigation.” As the mystery caller dictates their actions with a dubious but convincing authority, Sandra and a few other people are coerced into psychologically and sexually abusing their innocent coworker.
“Compliance” touts itself as based on true events, a branding often associated with narratively flimsy horror films. In “Compliance,” however, the events occur objectively according to the case on which the film is based. With this unembellished approach in mind, I found I needed to remind myself that these situations did in fact occur as the incidents on screen grew increasingly unsettling. Though certain moments seem nearly unbelievable, a bit of Google searching leads to a case at a Kentucky McDonalds that confirms Zobel’s adherence to reality.
“Compliance” is a hard film to watch, and what we see is precisely controlled. It is the kind of movie that makes you want to reach out into the film’s world and stop everything you’re seeing. “Compliance” is provocative, but not exploitative. Given the highly sexual nature of the situations in the film, there is a relatively modest amount of nudity. When those moments do arise, they are impactful and unsettling in their brevity. That said, the visual suggestions were strong enough to lead moderator Manaro to believe that she had previously seen a version of the film with a more explicit edit. Zobel had to assure her there was no such cut and that her imagination had actively filled in the blanks. It isn’t hard to imagine how international provocateurs such as Gaspar Noé and Lars Von Trier might have succumbed to their worst instincts with a story like this; their films occasionally cross the line between confrontational and sadistic or sexist. Zobel takes a restrained approach to the subject matter, and the film is all the more effective for it.
Zobel’s adept handling of the material didn’t stop a woman behind me from yelling “Gimme a fucking break!” and storming out of the theater about halfway through the film. She wasn’t the only walkout. Truthfully, at times I too wanted to scream and hop out of my seat, though not because I found the film offensive in such a way. “Compliance” is shot in close ups and tight shots, and it takes place largely in a single room. The resulting tension and claustrophobia are almost unbearably suffocating at times. A woman next to me was intermittently on her iPhone throughout the whole film. I found myself considering the annoyance as a reasonable and viable escape plan.
As the film progressed and characters became increasingly transparent/untrustworthy, people in the theater would occasionally laugh. I wondered if this was due to nervous tension, shocked disbelief or genuine amusement. I certainly hope the latter reason wasn’t the cause. “Compliance” is probably the least amusing movie I’ve seen all year. I should note that all the laughers were men. Nobody laughed throughout the final third of the film, though there were a fair amount of gasps and ambiguous snorts.
The discussion following the film was tense, though frequently insightful. Manaro brought up the famous 1961 experiment by Stanley Milgram, which found that when persuaded by a figure of perceived authority and relieved of responsibility most people could be coerced into dealing great harm to people they understood as test subjects (but who were in fact actors). The audience was asked if any of us would have gone along with the demands of the caller claiming to be a policeman. Only one person raised her hand, and as she had acted in the film her opinion was biased. The next fifteen minutes were spent arguing over why nobody thought they would fall for this kind of a prank, and if we all truly, or even statistically, could be as impervious as we claimed.
Certain arguments as to how the events of the film managed to occur seemed more tenable than others. One woman felt that the main difference between us and the people represented on screen was that we were intelligent people and they weren’t. This explanation was quickly deemed insufficient and vocally shot down by other members of the audience. Circumstances other than intelligence must be at play, right?
A more convincing explanation came from a bald man to my right. He felt that what was really the causal factor behind the abuses that occurred was that the caller was intentionally preying upon the financial and societal vulnerability of these fast food workers. The socio-economic approach appeared to be a more acceptable rationalization, and it was met with knowing nods and “Hmmm’s.” One of the psychologists suggested that anyone could be made to commit horrific acts under the right circumstances. This went over less well.
Some of the questions were a bit meandering, others weren’t even really questions. I got the sense that the issues raised by the film hadn’t quite settled in the minds of the viewers. It’s difficult, particularly in the span of a 20-minute Q&A, to confront and accept the possibility that if placed in a similar situation to the one faced by the film’s characters, you might very well be perceived as less than a hero — or even a villain. One audience member thought that everyone would have gone through with the demands of the man on the phone to a certain extent, and the room seemed to acknowledge that there is a slippery slope from victim to perpetrator.
By the end of the Q&A, it was clear that the film had deeply affected people, generating absorbing and impassioned discussion that easily spilled over the time limit. Directorial decisions and the filmmaking quality were not the focal point of the conversation, perhaps a testament to Zobel’s handling of the narrative. Ideally, every screening of “Compliance” would be followed by a Q&A session, even as part of the film’s regular theatrical run. It was fascinating to listen to a room full of strangers verbalize their opinions and debate the film. The discussion provided a sense of catharsis not present in the film’s ending. With the film’s opinion of human psychology rather damning, the Q&A allowed people to hash out why. The range of opinions and reactions to the film was wide, though the majority were entirely relatable. “Compliance,” with its disturbingly understated and upsetting nature, is truly a provocative film.