BFI London Film Festival 2012 – ‘Compliance’ is is an effective, faintly disturbing and unintentionally resonant work
Directed by Craig Zobel
Written by Craig Zobel
Starring Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp
Hands up if you heard about the notorious Milgram psychology experiments? Back in 1961, a group of psychology undergraduates from Yale University embarked on a controversial series of experiments devised by their mentor Professor Milgram. Two subjects – and lets divide them up for ease of explanation as Subject A and B – A was instructed to apply electric shocks to Subject B, the latter hidden from view in an adjoining room but with a sound-speaker piped in so the yells and finally screams of the electrocuted victim was audible to the button depressor. The instructions were designed to ascend from uncomfortable mild jolts to full on screaming pleas to stop, the experiment a deception to everyone except subject A, its purpose designed to assess how far a normal, rational person would go when being instructed to continue by a figure of authority, in this case the overseer white coated ‘scientist’ who would coolly instruct Subject A to continue the treatment with an aloof, surgical detachment. The procedure was designed in the shadow of Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem and his pathetic defence of ‘only obeying orders’, and something of the region of 65% of subjects continued the Milgram process to the point where they believed they were electrocuting their collegaue with a devestating 450 volts – an electrifying thought.
This process evidently amused the protagonist of Compliance, a psychopathic and sexually twisted prankster who called a number of fast food restaurants throughout the in the decade leading up to 2004, convincing his victims that he was a police officer and instructing them through a ingeniously cruel deterioration of stakes and clever mind games to conduct sexual assaults on innocently charged young women. In the film Compliance the the location is the local Chucky Chicken Fast Food joint and the slightly officious Sandra (Ann Dowd) is already having a bad day, having lost stock due to a freezer mistake and with a suspected head office secret taste tester paying a visit she rallies her teenage crew to be on their best behaviour and deliver the very highest standards of service. Slightly disinterested but spritely Becky (Dream Walker) is called into Sandra’s office under suspicion of stealing from a customers purse, protesting her innocence the caller convinces Sandra of his law enforcement status and the necessity of restraining Becky as her brother is involved in a wider, extremely serious investigation. Events deteriorate leading to Becky being strip-searched, and unfortunately worse is still to come….
The premise of course sounds ludicrous – how could any rational human being humilitate anyone purely on the orders of a disembodied voice at the end of a phone – but of course that is the central purpose of the film, to examine how such incredible acts of transgression and cognitive dissonance can be conjured when the presence of a authority figure is issuing the instructions, especially when compounded with potential threats to the conspiracies own personal reputation on society, their job security and their individual liberty. The authorities have over 70 cases happening over a decade on record and it is to the films credit that the descension of events and the characters suspension of belief is expertly handled, the director playing the film out in strained and confused close-ups of Becky and Sandra, as the off screen pervert is eventually revealed as a mild mannered family man strolling around his home whilst preparing meals, checking e-mail, flicking through his mail, conducting other domestic duties.
The film has received a certain level of notoriety given its ugly subject matter and alleged misappropriation of naked teenage flesh which the critics cite as a near identical transgression to the original leering crimes, quite frankly I don’t agree as this is a discreetly and dare I say it ‘tastefully’ arranged choreography to the visual proceedings, and it really is quite convincing how these people are indoctrinated into subjecting this poor young woman to this humiliating experience, when you see the psychology at play, malevolently wielded by the impersonator who’s to say you wouldn’t also comply in the same situation? Speaking from the UK where we are engulfed in a media typhoon as a beloved and idolised children’s presenter has been revealed as a serial paedophile over a staggering forty years, utilising his star position and prestige, his alleged power of authority to abuse young people and demand their absolute silence, Compliance is an effective, faintly disturbing and unintentionally resonant work, sure to provoke debate in the restaurants and bars after any conscripted viewings.