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.