In 1961, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments in order to test to what degree people will submit to authority. The test subject (given the designation of “Teacher”) was to ask questions to a person they could hear, but not see (they were behind a wall). If given a wrong answer, the Teacher would administer an electric shock, increasing the voltage each time the “Learner” was incorrect. Eventually, given enough wrong answers, the voltage would be high enough that the Learner would scream in pain. Naturally, the Teacher did not want to inflict such agony upon anyone, but 65% of the subjects carried on to the maximum voltage – because an authority figure would insist they had no choice, that they must continue.
Of course, the person behind the wall wasn't really receiving electric shocks; the experiment was to test how far the Teacher would go when ordered by an authority figure. The results were shocking, revealing that, to a large degree, people will submit, even if it goes against their basic principles.
More recently, a much more sinister exploration of the idea of conformity to authority has taken place. In the early 2000s, David Stewart perpetrated over seventy prank phone calls to fast food restaurants and grocery stores around the country. When calling, he would pretend to be a police officer and inform the manager that one of their female employees had committed some sort of crime and would need to be strip-searched. The final incident , which lead to his arrest, occurred at a McDonald's in Mount Washington, in Bullitt County.
The young woman in this incident was accused of stealing money from a customer's purse. Throughout the course of several hours, “Officer Scott” coerced the McDonald's manager into performing a full strip-search, eventually asking her to find a strong male to watch the still-naked girl until the police arrived so she could go deal with the busy restaurant. The search became increasingly invasive, with the girl being ordered to perform bizarre acts, and eventually resulting in sexual assault.
Thus is the subject of the film Compliance , which is based on the Mount Washington incident. Ann Dowd stars as Sandra, the manager of the fictional ChickWich fast food restaurant, who receives a phone call from “Officer Daniels” (Pat Healy) on a busy Friday night. Dreama Walker plays Becky, the accused counter-girl forced to undergo the strip search and various other humiliations.
The rational mind reels at the idea that an unseen person could have so much control over a person's actions merely by insisting he has the authority to do so. Thus is the brilliance of the film's script, which is based almost identically on the actual incident, thereby illustrating exactly how such a thing could happen. The answer? The rational mind is not present; the people involved in the incident were stressed out from the busy night at the restaurant, or confused and scared about being falsely accused of a crime. In addition, the caller seemed to know all sorts of information about the girl and the restaurant, when in reality he was subtly digging for facts then presenting himself as knowledgeable on the subjects.
As for the ultimate culmination of the search, no rationalization seems possible. Even the greatest cynic likes to believe that people are not so gullible; there is no adequate excuse. As writer/director Craig Zobel has remarked, “It seemed implausible to me that this would be possible. I don't like to say people are stupid, so the film for me was retroactively saying, 'What part of human nature lets this happen?'”
Compliance premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival amidst great controversy , with several people walking out during the screening due to the intense and disturbing nature of the subject matter. In addition, a shouting match broke out during the Q&A; one man interrupted Walker to yell, “Your body is pretty appealing!,” which encouraged other audience members to catcall towards the cast and director. Another woman yelled, “This is not the year to make violence against women entertaining.”
She is absolutely right – and entertaining this film is not. It is not a fun movie, something one would see for escapist purposes. However, it is a well-made and important movie. The woman is absolutely correct; when ridiculousness about “legitimate rape” and other such things are flying around, such subjects are not to be taken lightly. Compliance does not take it lightly. It serves as a cautionary tale, not only exploring the idea of submission to authority, but the very pertinent idea of gender roles in our society; perhaps we are not still as equal as we like to think we are.
Compliance is currently showing at Village 8 Theaters as the newest installment in the Louisville Exclusives series. It is currently scheduled to run until this Thursday, September 13, but this may be extended. Village 8 is located at 4014 Dutchmans Lane. Further theater information and showtimes can be found at the Village 8 website .
Images: Rotten Tomatoes