The context builds slowly, gradually revealing characters’ personality. Manager of the fictional, suburban Ohio fast food ChickWich, Sandra is receiving an emergency delivery. Some employee left the freezer door open, so this busy Friday is already in crisis mode. Then she gets a phone call from Officer Daniels saying that an employee (sure, that’s the one, cute blond Becky), stole money from a customer’s purse. Sandra needs to confront her, strip search her and more, involving other employees. Daniels is convincing—his voice, his choice of words, his psychological manipulation with good cop/bad cop comments.
The claustrophobic set intensifies the anxiety and feeling of entrapment. Similarly, the sound design limits interpretive, atmospheric music, letting on-screen silence prompt more viewer squirming. When, about halfway through the film, Zobel cuts to the caller, unease increases.
Because Zobel’s draws on over 70 similar real events spanning a decade, Compliance gives us no easy place to hide as events onscreen become increasingly appalling. Various psychology experiments provide further testimony to the credibility of such behavior. The 1961 Milgram study involved subjects, when prompted by an authority figure, delivering what they believed to be increasingly harmful electric shocks to a “learner” who gave an incorrect answer. Blue eye/brown eye experiments, guard/prisoner scenarios, and all the times individuals report that they only “followed orders” also reinforce the credibility of what, as we watch the film, seems unbelievable. Would that it were.
The real life culprit, a Florida prison guard, was apprehended. Still, seldom has a film made me so uneasy. Therefore it’s with caution that I recommend Compliance. I do so because it is a valuable, even essential warning to analyze and think before following reprehensible orders only because a self-proclaimed authority figure gives them. At a Landmark Theatre.