Dec 21, 2015

Authority and Compliance

via Alternative Right

"The experiment requires that you continue."
Compliance, a barely-known and rarely-discussed 2012 film written and directed by Craig Zobel, features a thoroughly unglamorous, no-name cast and is set almost entirely in the most familiar and ubiquitous of establishments: a fast-food restaurant somewhere in the heart of the large swath of country known as "Middle America." Yet this thoroughly unnerving film manages to create an atmosphere of unbearable suspense and creeping horror without introducing any blood, violence, or pyrotechnics whatsoever.

The central premise of Compliance is indeed more disquieting than any "torture porn": the movie suggests that people generally would rather obey authority, even at the expense of their own moral beliefs, than challenge or resist a supposed "man in charge." Instead of fighting, they would sooner meekly allow themselves to be degraded, molested, and violated; worse, they are at least as likely to become equally hapless instruments of degradation, molestation, and violation against others, all to avoid being a bother to someone who claims the power to demand compliance from them.

Compliance, which purports to be based on a true story, in fact takes its cue from the famous — and, one might with justice say, deeply shocking — experiments conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s, which appeared to confirm that human beings will indeed follow nearly any orders, as long as said orders are delivered authoritatively by someone with an imposing presence and a forceful voice.

But Compliance adds texture to the Milgram thesis by confronting us with the ways in which we sometimes positively yearn for just such an authority figure in our lives, to justify our doing the sort of things that we would like to do anyway, but lack the nerve to justify to ourselves. Yet if a Man In Charge tells us that it's okay, then we have license to indulge those wicked impulses, from which the better angels of our nature held us in check before the external authority figure managed to override our conscience.


The pivotal character in "Compliance" is Sandra (Ann Dowd), manager of a "ChickWich" franchise at an indeterminate location in suburban Ohio. Sandra is a frumpy middle-aged spinster whose strict, stalwart work ethic belies a deep and fearful personal insecurity. We get the clear sense that this competent but somewhat pitiful woman would like to "fit in" better, particularly with her younger employees, and most particularly with Becky (Dreama Walker), a pretty teenage blonde.

Sandra resents Becky for being young, attractive, and popular. So when a call comes in from a man claiming to be "Detective Daniels" of the local police force, apprising her that a customer has claimed that Becky stole a wad of cash from her at the counter, and asking Sandra to detain the girl until the police are able to show up at the scene, she is altogether eager to be of service, inwardly relishing the opportunity of helping to bring low the alpha-female prom queen.

Ann Dowd in "Compliance"
Of course it doesn't stop there. The "detective" speaks to both Sandra and Becky (they obediently hand the phone back and forth when instructed to do so), claiming now that he is with a squad at Becky's house, uncovering a huge and scandalous criminal operation involving both the teenager and her supposedly drug-dealing older brother. Since it will be a while longer before any of his men will be able to arrive at the "ChickWich," he asks Sandra to strip-search Becky in order to see whether she has stashed the cash anywhere on her person. Becky, for her part, is mortified by the idea, claiming insistently that she hasn't stolen anything. Still, she agrees to remove her clothes, thinking that by doing so she can finally show everyone the truth. Daniels then commands Sandra to take the girl's clothes to her car, leaving Becky naked in the employee break room. (A sympathetic co-worker gives the now weeping and distraught girl an apron so she may at least partially cover herself.)

It soon becomes clear — as we have suspected from the start — that "Detective Daniels" is a fraud; he is in truth no police officer, but a man calling from his house, engaging in a terrible scam, apparently for no other purpose than to get his sadistic jollies. Like Dr. Milgram, he speaks authoritatively and cajoles or threatens nearly everyone with whom he speaks into doing his will, and no one challenges him or questions his status. Meanwhile he opens his refrigerator and fixes himself a sandwich.

The plot thickens still more when Van, Sandra's dim-witted and drunken boyfriend, a paunchy fellow pushing 50, shows up at the scene. The bogus "Detective Daniels" is able to recruit Van to take the prank to a horrifying new level. Van gives off a slightly seedy vibe, though he generally seems docile and harmless; such a one as he would be easy to manipulate even with all of his faculties intact; inebriated as he is, the man is simply putty in the hands of his master.
Van: paunchy putty in the hands of an adept manipulator.
The faux-detective directs this unfortunate man to keep an eye on Becky, the cute blonde wearing only an apron in the back room. Sandra is well aware of where her fiancé is during this whole time; strangely, she fears nothing going amiss, since the Man In Charge directing Van's movements is (she thinks) an officially appointed authority figure, who presumably can neither do wrong himself nor influence anyone else to do wrong. Detective Daniels solemnly informs Van that the first strip search of Becky wasn't thorough enough; he'll have to make her remove the apron and then do jumping jacks, to jar loose the money she must have hidden in some crevice of her body. What's more, Becky needs to learn some respect for her elders; Daniels directs Van to command Becky to call him "sir." And afterward, the "detective" promises, she'll be made to do something else for Van, something to reward him for all of his untiring efforts to see that justice prevails and that wrongs are righted...

We don't see all that happens next, but we see enough to know that neither Van nor Becky calls a halt to the increasingly lurid and debased proceedings. When Van leaves a few minutes later, it is hard not to feel sorry for him; he wears the expression of one keenly aware that he has behaved monstrously, out of obedience to inner lusts he would ordinarily have forsworn, all to placate a voice on a telephone who claimed to know what was for the best. Deep down, Van knows that he always knew better. Indeed, when he gets on the phone with a friend, he sadly announces, "I've done a bad thing."

The truly chilling aspect of this final degradation of both compliant victim and artfully recruited victimizer is suggested in a final scene that subtly puts a new perspective on the entirety of what has taken place.

While gleefully manipulating his human marionettes via phone to the final and most devastatingly horrific violation, the man pretending to be the detective sits at his desk and calmly lights a cigarette. That gesture conveys a sense of cruel detachment from the havoc he has wreaked. Eventually, though, we briefly meet the real detective summoned to investigate the malignant prank caller who caused all the chaos and confusion. In a long shot in which we see the true investigator's face as he drives to the crime scene, he too pulls out a cigarette, lights it, and puffs away.

The fact that this gesture of the "real" cop mirrors that of the "fake" one isn't meant to imply moral equivalence between the two characters, or to suggest that if given a chance, the actual investigator would behave just as wickedly as the impostor has. Rather, it's meant to make us wonder: just how does a supposedly "legitimate" demand of compliance from a "legitimate" source — that is to say, from an agent of the state — differ from that of an "illegitimate" one?

There appears to be no satisfying answer to this question. Thus, one is prompted concomitantly to wonder if one truly has any obligation to comply with any authority that demands our allegiance, be that authority officially sanctioned or, as it were, independently asserted. After all, anytime we are compliant to one who claims power over us, our compliance comes at great peril to our lives, our well-being, and everything important to us. Far better to be defiant, even if such a choice leads to our being held in contempt by the powers that be. For in that case, we will surely be able to return the favor.

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