Yes, writer/director Craig Zobel’s unsettling drama Compliance provides a harrowing true-life demonstration of the infamous Milgram experiment in blind deference to authority. But it also packs even more philosophical punch in the middle of its visceral unpleasantness.
The fact-based story finds fast-food restaurant manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) receiving a call on a particularly hectic Friday from a police officer (Pat Healy) claiming that teenage employee Becky (Dreama Walker) has been accused by a customer of stealing from her purse. The officer just wants Sandra’s help to get to the bottom of the accusation. And from there, what begins as a simple search of Becky goes to unexpectedly dark places.
Zobel sets up his scenario brilliantly, making the manager’s acquiescence to questionable orders as much a function of fear of losing her job as blind obedience. He also explores the subtle psychology of manipulation, as the caller alternates between gentle sympathy for those he’s speaking to, and overt threats and demands of respect for his authority. Dowd’s phenomenal performance, meanwhile, captures the way fundamental insecurity—an incident involving a freezer being left open overnight has made Sandra particularly anxious about interaction with her superiors—can lead to incomprehensible decisions. It’s a perfect touch that she’s less concerned about stashing a naked employee’s clothing in her car for police to pick up than she is with the possibility of trash being noticed in that car.
Zobel really only makes one truly illadvised choice, as we eventually see too much of the caller in a performance that steers the focus into awkward “monster next door” territory; there may have been no perfect way to get to the real-life details, but this approach feels forced. It’s a much more terrifying story when the monster isn’t the man on the phone, but the thing in our heads that tells us he’s not actually a monster.
Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy