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Film Review


In 1961, Professor Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist, did a series of now famous (or infamous, depending upon your view) experiments designed to test how many people would be willing to inflict physical pain on another person if ordered by an authoritative leader. Volunteers were recruited from newspaper ads offering $4/hour for their time for memory experiments. The test subjects, called the "teachers", thought that they were giving a painful electric shock to other test subjects when the second set of test subjects gave an incorrect answer. The test was set up so that the voltage was gradually increased, with the "teachers" told that the higher voltage shocks would be very painful. However the subjects receiving the apparent shocks were part of the experiment, and were not really being shocked, unbeknownst to the "teachers". All of Milgram's students and colleagues predicted that only a tiny minority would be willing to inflict such pain, even if told to do so. But in fact about 65% of the test subjects were willing to inflict this pain, although many complained afterward of feeling coerced or guilty. Milgram had confirmed his suspicion that many people were willing to be obedient to an authority, even if it conflicts with their own personal beliefs, grim news to be sure. His experiments and later writings have become well known and influential, although critics argue that some subjects suspected a hoax and thus were willing to go along with it.

Craig Zobel, a young American filmmaker and writer, was intrigued by the reports of certain incidents at a number of fast food restaurants, and decided to write and produce a film, "Compliance", exploring the subject of obedience to authority. The film opens with Sandra, the middle aged manager of a fast food restaurant in rural Ohio, having to deal with a problem caused by an careless employee who left a freezer door open. The next day we see Sandra briefing her young employees for the expected rush of business, trying to focus each on their tasks, which are often repetitive and boring, yet important to the functioning of her restaurant. As the rush begins, a very pressured Sandra gets a phone call from a police officer, claiming that one of her employees, a young woman, Becky, took some money from a customer's purse. Sandra is incredulous, and asks the officer how he knows that. The officer says that the customer has reported it, and their surveillance team confirmed the theft. He has Sandra's boss on the other line, and tells Sandra to bring Becky into her office and question Becky about the theft. Although the restaurant is very busy, Sandra tells Becky to come into her office, and asks her about the theft. Becky is astonished, and denies it. The officer is still on the phone, directing Sandra's questioning. After Becky's denial, the officer said that Becky must have the money on her, and asks Sandra to search her purse. Sandra does, but finds nothing. The officer continues, directing Sandra to search Becky. Although hesitant, she does, and finds nothing. The officer continues to insist that Sandra follow his instructions, praising her when she does, and chiding her when she is reluctant.

Zobel's actors are outstanding here, and their characters sympathetic, except one. Most are relative unknowns, but all believable. Although its depiction of psychological violence is repugnant, "Compliance", continues to become more sinister and tense. In fact the level of tension is incredible. At times I wanted to leave, but felt riveted by the unfolding train wreck. The scenes are claustrophobic, most in the cramped space of the restaurant's kitchen and Sandra's office. The background noise of the crowded restaurant and grim music added to the tension. Closeups of fast food cooking and greasy sinks lent even more disgust to the unfolding story. There is a cinema verite quality, and portions of the film seem done by Frederick Wiseman.
"Compliance" is a gem, only 90 minutes long, brilliant in its look at obedience, intimidation, and its consequences. It may tell us more about ourselves than we want to know. The coda, in which Sandra talks about the experience, is as frightening as the story itself. Zobel has made a powerful film, with important lessons here for everyone. Playing at the Lumiere. Have a great Labor Day.

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