The words "inspired by true events" are the first things to appear on screen in Compliance, Craig Zobel's queasy thriller of discomfort. I knew that this was the case going in, and had heard the basic facts of the "strip-search prank-call scam" that serves as the movie's inspiration. But I didn't know the full details — and as an ever-increasing load of humiliation and indignity was piled on the teenage fast-food worker at its center, I found myself getting angry with the film, assuming that Zobel was amping up the severity of real events for dramatic effect.
The facts of the situation as I thought I understood them seemed harrowing enough: As it plays out in the movie, Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager of an Ohio "Chickwich" fast-food joint, receives a call from a man (Pat Healy) falsely claiming to be a police detective; he accuses a cashier, Becky (Dreama Walker), of stealing money from a customer. "Officer Daniels" then enlists Sandra's aid in taking Becky into custody and strip-searching her.
That not only Sandra but multiple employees of the store went along with this hoax is jarring enough. The further degradations the film goes on to detail just seem like overblown narrative embellishments, except for one important fact: They all happened, too.
Compliance plays out like a twisted illustration of the conclusions reached by two of the most famous psychological experiments ever conducted: The 1961 Milgram experiment, which showed that given a legitimate authority figure issuing orders and taking responsibility, people will do as they're told, even if that means causing another person severe pain; and the 1971 Stanford prison experiment, in which normal people given the roles of prisoner and guard would play out the expectations of those assignments, often to cruel ends.
The chillingly sociopathic caller puts both of those concepts into play here, being stern with Sandra — and the other people who are later called upon to guard and search Becky — when a controlling influence is needed, but also passing along that authority, to give them their own power to wield as well. There's an eerie calm combined with a disturbing impish glee in Healy's turn as the caller, and Dowd plays Sandra with just the right mixture of uncertainty and commitment to duty; that mix creates the baseline of sympathy for her that's necessary for her to come off as both a victim and a perpetrator here.
Zobel chooses to give the viewer the role of omniscient observer here, the intent seemingly being to create a sense of dread by giving us all perspectives at once. The caller's manipulations are on full display, and Becky's impending violations are all detailed before they happen.
The director also displays extreme caution when it comes to the line between observer and voyeur: His camera doesn't shy away from Becky's nudity, but it also doesn't linger. And when her imprisonment reaches its most lurid low, Zobel recognizes the value of the Greek-tragedy approach, and mostly turns away to let our own minds fill in the blanks.
The sum total is uncomfortable, extremely difficult to watch, and it may still strike some viewers as too raw. That's all by design, and the film expertly uses all of its resources to jangle the nerves; the grimy scrape of the driving cellos in Heather McIntosh's excellent score for chamber strings is still echoing anxiously in my head.
But there is the lingering question of how much Zobel's approach really offers any enlightenment as to why this incident — and 69 others similar to it over a period of 12 years — happened. Making the viewer privy to all sides does heighten the tension, but it also offers a certain distance. It's too easy to watch what's going on and think, "Well, I would certainly never fall for that trick or do any of these awful things."
That's a convenient and not entirely honest reprieve, given the Milgram results suggesting that that's simply not true for more than two-thirds of us. It feels like a missed opportunity; Zobel might have drawn us into the film more fully, made us complicit in Sandra's misdeeds. Even without that added mirror, though, Compliance is still a wickedly compelling thriller, a skin-crawling, stranger-than-fiction examination of the darkest power of authority.