Compliance, the sophomore feature from Great World of Sound filmmaker Craig Zobel, is a kind of intellectual torture chamber that uses the notorious Stanley Milgram behavioral experiments in the 1960s as a jumping-off point for its own nearly unendurable cinematic exercise in the cruel exercise of power.
Milgram, for those who aren’t aware, conducted a series of controversial experiments during the ’60s in which volunteer “teachers” essentially tricked participant “learners” into engaging in (simulated) morally reprehensible behavior by pretending they were authority figures. The implication of the experiments was certainly provocative: The Milgram experiments suggested that even innocent people could be pushed to commit atrocious acts if pressured to do so by those they considered above them.
Taking cues from a series of real reported events, Zobel devises a narrative that enacts a fictionalized version of the Milgram experiments in miniature. Set at a fast-food restaurant in Ohio, Compliance pits the restaurant’s stressed-out boss, Sandra (Ann Dowd), and overworked employees against a man on the phone who claims to be a police officer investigating alleged monetary theft at the hands of one of the employees, Becky (Dreama Walker). The man on the phone identifies himself as Officer Daniels, and he seems convincing enough on the phone, convincing enough that when the cop insists that Sandra strip search Becky on the theory that she may be savvy enough of a thief to hide money on her body somewhere, Sandra, not really liking Becky all that much in the first place anyway, reluctantly complies. The appalling absurdities only increase from there—especially once we discover who “Officer Daniels” really is.
Zobel is absolutely relentless in the way he tells his story, pushing long takes and claustrophobic settings to the limit in order to squeeze out the maximum amount of discomfort possible in each situation. And he elicits utterly pitch-perfect performances from all the members of his cast. The visceral effect of Compliance is akin to that of a vise tightening its grip around not only some of its characters, but on the audience as well. If much of the film feels like the filmmakers forcing the audience down under water, each cutaway from the backroom where Officer Daniels forces Sandra to hold Becky thus feels like the audience coming up for occasional breaths of air.
It’s easy to grasp the film’s intentions early on: Through a merciless examination of this group of people as they are pushed to do unspeakable things that they normally would find unconscionable, Zobel aims to implicate us all in what he forces us to confront. We may think we’re above these people, that we certainly wouldn’t act the same way in the same situation—but would we, really? And to Zobel’s credit, Compliance never allows his desire to provoke to overwhelm the human beings at the heart of this film; this isn’t a finger-wagging theoretical experiment like Michael Haneke’s two Funny Games films.
As far as what the film sets out to do and how it goes about doing it, there isn’t a whole lot one can fault about it; it’s pretty much a perfect film in those regards. But I remain ambivalent to it, perhaps because of my suspicion that, as much as Zobel thinks he’s revealing harsh truths about human nature through his torturous approach, he also comes damn near to crossing the line into full-on alignment with the man on the phone administering this torture in the first place. Once you grasp the film’s intentions, there really isn’t a whole left to do except watch the unpleasantness escalate until, at a certain point, it no longer does. Also, while Zobel gives us enough character details in order for the behavior of his characters to make sense within this particular self-contained context, he doesn’t give us enough for their actions to carry much tragic emotional resonance beyond those particulars. Compliance is certainly powerful, but it’s powerful in a “beat-you-into-submission” kind of way that feels more like bullying than thoughtful provocation. My instinct is to reject the experience of watching it as crude and one-note, but perhaps that would be playing into Zobel’s hands, exposing me as unable to, well, comply with his style and accept it on its own terms.
SXSW runs from March 9—18.