The findings of the controversial docudrama Compliance have been compared to the Stanford Prison Experiment, as well as the Milgram Experiment, wherein purportedly nice people, given the chance to deliver intense shocks to those who wrongly answered questions, proved to be zapping sadists. The subject is the so-called “strip search prank call scam.” In these, of which there were 70-some occurrences, a stranger, pretending to be a detective, called businesses and coaxed managers into strip-searching female employees alleged of thievery. The disturbing implications—people will do anything if someone feigns an air of superiority—have inspired news magazine segments and an episode of Law and Order: SVU with Robin Williams as the perp.
With Compliance, you’ll have to arrive at such lofty connections yourselves. Filmmaker Craig Zobel (Great World of Sound) simply presents the story, frill-less. He never hits you over the head with explanatory monologues or dour text scrawls that overtly tie it to a grander look at humanity’s underside. (You’ll have to read the film’s many think pieces to draw comparisons to Nazi Germany.) The minimalist nature may be what has made the film, to many outraged audience members, so deeply unnerving, and Zobel makes it as plain and unassuming as possible. Ann Dowd, in a stunningly unstunning performance, plays the manager of ChickWich, an Ohio fast food joint, who finds herself juggling a busy day with a phone call from a cop claiming that one young employee (Dreama Walker) has secretly robbed a customer. At first, the caller’s demands sound reasonable, and by the time he’s established a foundation of trust, he’s already crossed a line.
The decision to reveal this as a prank—showing that the detective is really some dude (Pat Healy) making sandwiches in his suburban house—is seriously questionable, but the rest is sound. Healy, whose acting helped make Ti West’s The Innkeepers so special earlier this year, masterfully vacillates between stern officiousness and bro-ish jocularity, a mix that helps erode his targets’ bullshit detectors. The film’s events have encouraged many to accuse its characters of rank stupidity and others to obliviously say that, hey, these are fast food employees, so what do you expect? Both positions are wrong-headed, as the relentlessly drab Compliance goes out of its way to seem scarily plausible.