Thursday, January 10, 2013

Compliance (2012)

***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of making the film viewing experience any lesser.

In 1961, Yale University Psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of social psychology experiments, collectively termed The Milgram Experiment.  These experiments tested the willingness of the participants to submit to a person of authority by obeying him/her and perform certain acts even if they went against their moral conscience. The purpose of the experiment was specifically to answer a question about the existence of a sense of morality in some Nazi SS Officers who carried out the Holocaust. The point that was being driven at was, that a majority of these officers were only following orders, and it had nothing to do with their own moral beliefs about the ghastly deeds in question.

Something similar was done much later, only this was no official experiment. It was a series of prank calls made to fast food chains and departmental stores over a few years in the early 2000s! The caller posing to be an authoritative figure, like a policeman, called up mostly fast food restaurants in small towns across the USA and convinced the store managers/floor managers to conduct strip searches of their young female employees, under the pretext of seeking their help to carry out a bigger police investigation! One of these cases went so far as to turn into a lewd circus of humiliation, involving three to four other members, one of them not even employed with the restaurant! All this, thanks to the very smooth-talking caller and a dimwitted store manager who felt she was helping the police! This shocking event happened at a McDonald’s restaurant in Mount Washington, Kentucky. (
Writer-Director Craig Zobel’s 2012 disturbing thriller, "Compliance" is based on this event. Sandra (Ann Dowd, terrific; the best performance in the film), a middle-aged manager of Chickwich, a local fast food chain, is having a bad day at work. It’s Friday and there was already an incidence of a freezer door being left open the night before, leading to spoiled goods worth $1500! Already upset and somewhat tensed about facing the regional manager about this, she instructs her employees to be on their toes and make do with whatever limited urgent stock of Bacon and pickles they ordered. Business continues as usual, until one phone call made to the back office changes everything!

A voice claiming to be Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) asks to speak with Sandra and informs her that there’s a person with him, reporting a theft by one of the employees at ChickWich, a young, blonde girl. He also claims that he has the regional manager on the other line and wants to get to the bottom of the matter on the phone if possible, and get it over with sooner. Sandra, believing the girl in question to be Becky (Dreama Walker), as she fits the description, brings her in. Mentioning that there was no officer to run over to the restaurant right now, Officer Daniels smooth talks Sandra and convinces her that she would do a great favor to the police by helping out. After an initial search for the stolen money in Becky’s pockets and purse, Sandra is instructed to strip search the girl, and if necessary, hinted to carry out a body cavity search! And this is where things start to get uglier. The caller asks a lot of questions, some uncomfortable ones, reaffirms that he is the authority, the law, and it is Sandra’s and the other staff’s duty to comply! He also adds that there is a bigger investigation going on, and if either Becky or Sandra refuse to cooperate, he may have to detain her or both of them in police custody for questioning!

What begins as a preliminary check to look for money turns into an ordeal of humiliation and harassment that continues over the next few hours, with involvement from others, including Sandra’s fiancé, Van (Bill Camp, in a neatly restrained, ambiguous performance), participating in the revolting act which, indeed, turns into an abasing sexual assault, all at the behest of the caller who calls himself the authority!

Though not a very easy film to watch, Zobel gives us a highly effective, claustrophobic nail-biter; a kind of film that is capable of having a strong psychological effect on the viewer. It proves to be Zobel’s own experiment with the audiences to find how they react as mute spectators to the on-goings in the film! What kind of a reaction is this film capable of invoking? I am sure there may have been several walkouts, some others may have scoffed at the implausibility of the events, still others must have felt sickened, yet sat through it anyway! There were a few times I felt like yelling "How dumb is this! Verify if that man is indeed a police officer! No policeman would ask you to do that! Why aren’t you personally calling the regional manager?" My own reaction was that of seething rage, frustration and helplessness. It was simply difficult to fathom  that something like this could happen! And then that paves the way for jotting down several character actions and reactions which could go down as inherent technical flaws or holes that demand a lot of suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer! Why give in to the caller’s demands? Why not just let yourself get arrested, come face to face with the complainant and get the matter sorted out? Why even perform the deeds? Can they just not pretend? The caller can’t see them anyway. Why does Sandra not call the regional manager herself to corroborate the officer’s claim that he is on the other line? Why does Sandra leave her middle-aged, drunk fiancé alone with Becky and ask him to obey the officer’s orders? And finally, why does he in turn, comply? Did he not have the sanity that the woman he was engaged to, lacked? Maybe it was his own loyalty being put to the test by the twisted mind of the caller! Maybe he was already a man, sick in the head, being seduced by a golden chance of being an authority by himself and getting to do forbidden things to a comely young girl half his age…

A lot many questions keep hammering you until you face the fact that such behavior is very much possible, if not always probable! At this juncture we would probably put ourselves in their shoes. What would we have done in a similar situation? Majority of the answers would be "anything but that"! Frankly, that’s easier said than done, with a police officer being put on hold, threatening to detain one of you in custody for not co-operating with the law! Maybe some of us would risk it, and eventually save ourselves a lot of trouble. But this is exactly where diverse human traits come into play! Not all of us are risk takers are we?

Then we recall Milgram’s experiment! Milgram did find some success, wherein the subjects obeyed the experimenter, regardless of their personal view on the act in question! At least the subjects in Milgram’s experiments knew they were a part of an experiment, but still went along, when prodded! It is reported that in Milgram’s first set of experiments, he had more than 50% subjects who complied! But the characters in this film are only meek individuals trying to make a living. They merely wanted to get the situation out of the way as quickly as possible and avoid a long police procedure! Blame it on lack of common sense or lack of intelligence. Or in other cases, the fear of the law or simply the itch for dominance and power! No matter how ridiculous and twisted the demands of the caller got, the people in question, barring a couple, always obeyed! Did they do wrong?

Nonetheless, the inevitable aftermath of the incident followed; people were fired, others went into therapy, and the perpetrator, an ordinary family man got arrested (and later acquitted!). But at what cost? An unfortunate incident, a harmless prank turning into a lifetime of shame!

Barring the rather cold, wooden performance of Dreama Walker, as Becky, the victim, "Compliance" is a remarkable low-budget indie thriller that is worth your time. If for nothing else, do watch it as an lesson in awareness. It could happen to you…!

Score: 8/10

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