Over the last week, my mind was consumed by the Milgram Experiment. Malcolm Gladwell mentioned it in one his insightful essays. He spoke of it like everyone knew what it was. I did not. So I looked it up on good ol’ Wikipedia. You know, for the sake of general knowledge. It’s basically a test to see how much punishment a subject would inflict if some form of high authority dishes out the orders. Milgram found that 65% of the subjects inflicted the most severe form of punishment (equivalent of a 450-volt shock), a whole lot more than the 10% predicted by his students and colleagues.
So it was a quite a coincidence when I’d heard a movie called Compliance was a re-enactment of all the falsities of the experiment’s application. What I didn’t know was that it’s based on true events. Compliance had created a stir at the Sundance Festival, including a heated Q&A session. It takes place at a fast-food restaurant, the cheesily named Chikwich, in a quiet, rural Ohio town. It’s a busy Friday evening, as busy as any rural town can conjure. A phone call from an Officer Daniels forces Sandra, the franchise manager, away from the hustle and bustle. The officer claims some money was stolen from a customer’s purse. The prime suspect Becky, a teenage girl, pleads innocence. The rest of the plot takes place in Sandra’s office, which serves as Becky’s trial court. The officer proceeds to coax Sandra, Becky and various others into questionable acts in the name of criminal investigation.
The Milgram experiment, by nature, asks some very difficult questions of human emotions. Compliance takes them a step further. How far does one follow instructions given by a figure of high authority? When does one question the instructions and its after-effects? How far will the subject go to inflict punishment that doesn’t feel right to him? Suspicion. Paranoia. Jealousy. All converged to create havoc in the viewer's mind. At a certain point, it made me feel a tad uncomfortable. But rest assured, I was wired in the entire time. When I watch movies that make me think, I sit up, lean forward from my seat and fold my hands under my chin. Within 15 minutes, I had positioned myself into my thinking movie pose. I maintained that pose till the end of the movie.
Ann Dowd gives complete justice to Sandra, the circumspect manager. The close-ups of her suspicious eyes on an aging face say a lot more than her words do. Pat Healy lends an eerily convincing voice to Officer Daniels. Also worthy of mention is the original soundtrack by Heather McIntosh. It provides a haunting touch to the slow-moving, yet crafty, visuals. The review almost writes itself as I listen to it on Spotify right now. Almost. Craig Zobel as the director makes sure the long shots give the viewer plenty of time to absorb each emotion.
If it wasn’t based on a true story, the entire plot may have been a laughing matter; the disclaimer at the beginning lets the viewer buy into the proceedings. The sad part is it happened to someone in real life. According to the end credits, 70 such occurrences took place in 30 U.S. states over a decade. That figure is no joke. All the social implications apart, Compliance is a deftly crafted masterpiece that covers themes that go beyond the setting of a workplace. It’s one of those movies which you will either immensely love or downright hate; no gray areas here. Either way, it will stay with you long after you’ve walked out of the movie theater.
Watch it if you liked: It vaguely reminded me of Phone Booth, but they are not at all similar. Compliance is in a league of its own. It plays at the Capitol Theater.