Wow. Just… Wow.
That was my reaction at the end of Compliance, a highly controversial new film from Craig Zobel (George Washington, Great World of Sound) delving into the psychology of following orders. Gripping and emotional with a superb cast of actors, this film is one of the most important movies you should see this year.
A police officer calls a fast food restaurant in Ohio and tells the manager that a female employee is accused of stealing. He then orders the manager to help his investigation by violating the employee’s privacy and dignity in increasingly horrific ways. The manager obeys him without question.
As it turns out, the man on the phone isn’t really a cop. He’s just a man sitting in his home having fun at another person’s expense.
The events illustrated in Compliance are truly unbelievable- how could anyone be so stupid as to believe this guy, to do all the terrible things he says?
But the truth is they did happen. They happened more than 70 times in restaurants across 30 U.S. states. In each case the managers in charge, when asked how they could have done this, all said they thought they were following police orders.
Compliance is a frightening look at how gullible we can be when someone claims to be an authority. We will even go against our own morals and our own common sense if an authority tells us to do so. We may not want to admit it, but study after study has proven this to be true.
The film does an incredible job of showing us how quickly “following orders” can escalate. Once the human psyche has identified and accepted someone as an authority figure, then it can easily be manipulated by that power dynamic.
The manager readily accepts the man on the phone as a local police officer. He claims to have the regional manager, who he mentions by name, on the other line. He threatens to put the young employee in jail if she does not obey. All these actions solidify the man’s claim to authority in the minds of the victims involved- and Compliance illustrates every single detail of the man’s carefully crafted manipulation. This is a wonderful tactic allowing the viewer to assess every factor leading up to this ordeal- and wonder how we would have acted in the same situation.
Ann Dowd (Marley & Me, Garden State) as Sandra the franchise manager, and Dreama Walker (Gran Torino, Sex and the City) as Becky the young employee are perfect for their roles. Dowd is a middle-aged friendly Midwest woman quick to trust anyone and Walker is an impressionable teenager who doesn’t want to cause any trouble. While the roles are both difficult and complex, Dowd and Walker play them convincingly throughout the whole piece.
Compliance is disturbing to say the least, yet the cringes are well worth it based on the important debate and questions that the film raises about ourselves. Well-written, well acted, and impeccably filmed, this should be a film everybody is talking about.