Compliance may be the first movie I’ve ever seen that includes a “Based on a true story” type tag at the beginning and the end. It is necessary in this case, as you must be reminded that what you just saw actually happened. As uncomfortable as the film can be during its 90-minute running time, it is at the end titles that it becomes horrifying.
I would not say that I enjoyed Compliance1, but it is the movie this year that has been on my mind the most. Though dark and at times hard to watch, this film is timely and incisive, and is something I will be mulling over for quite a while.
Our story begins at a fast food restaurant in Ohio. The manager receives a call. The person on the other end says that they are a police officer and that they have evidence that a girl who matches the description of the cashier had stolen money from a customer and needed to be detained. The manager detains her, while staying on the phone with this gentleman and following his instructions on how to proceed.
You may notice the very careful word choice in that description. It is hardly a spoiler to note that the man calling the restaurant is, in fact, not a police officer. He’s just a guy. We watch as the scene unfolds and his requests become more and more extreme, and see how our protagonist responds.
In 1961, Stanley Milgram conducted some experiments in an attempt to discover whether Nazi soldiers could be convicted of “mutual intent”. The question he wanted to answer was whether or not the mass number of accomplices in the Holocaust could truly have been “just following orders.”
The experiment went as such: The subject was brought into the room with the scientist conducting the experiment and an actor. The subject was set up as the “teacher” in the experiment and the actor was the “learner”. The scientist told the subject that they were going to teach the “learner” a series of word pairs and that for every one the “learner” got wrong, the “teacher” would administer a shock, increasing in 15-volt intervals for each incorrect answer.
The “learner” then went out of view and the experiment began. There were no real shocks used in the experiment, the actor simply ramped up their performance as the experiment went on. As the volts increased and the situation seemed more and more dire for the “learner”, many subjects expressed concern and were uncomfortable continuing. They were given the following responses, in order:
- Please continue.
- The experiment requires that you continue.
- It is absolutely essential that you continue.
- You have no other choice, you must go on.
The final shock was a massive 450 volts. Milgram found that a stunning 65% (26 of 40) of the subjects administered that shock. It was a staggeringly dark look into the human condition and our tricky relationship with authority. It found that people, when pressed, will often respond to the commands of authority figures, even when what they are asked to do is horrifying.2
To watch the film Compliance is to witness this experiment come to life. Only, in this case, the victim is not an actor pretending to be hurt, but a real person deeply scarred by this encounter. It is unnerving, it is intense, and as one person in my screening put it so eloquently afterwards, “That was the most f—ed up thing I’ve ever seen.”
I had read of the commotion this film caused at Sundance and a couple stories about people making dramatic exits mid-way through to voice their disapproval of the film. This caused me to expect for things to go the way of Hostel or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but that was not the case. There is nothing gratuitous about the way it is shot and from that perspective it was much tamer than I’d anticipated. Perhaps it was just knowing what was going on and knowing how wrong it all was. It may be too much for some to handle.
It is an interesting time for this film to come out. There’s a lot of discussion going on now about civil liberties and whether some of them have shrunk or been removed. The golden example is, of course, the TSA dog and pony show for air travel. The latest gem I’ve heard is a procedure where the TSA employees say “Freeze!” and everyone is supposed to stop and stand perfectly still.3 It was documented in a New York Times article in 2011 and recently in a video someone posted to YouTube.
To what extent are we willing to comply with authority? And at what cost? These are valuable questions.
Compliance will make you uncomfortable. It might make you angry. It might make you sick. It will almost assuredly make you think. I would contend that it is a train of thought worth traveling.
Oh, and remember, this is all based on a true story.