The important thing is not to stop questioning. Albert Einstein made this plea, and it seems no-one listened.
That much is made clear by Compliance, a low budget indie flick from the U.S. that garnered some good notices at the like of Sundance for its director, Craig Zobel, and its stars Dreama Walker and Ann Dowd.
Just another day at a fast food joint in Middle America turns into something quite sinister when dowdy jobsworth manager Sandra (Dowd) gets a phone call. The man at the other end of the line identifies himself as a policeman and tells Sandra that her counter-drone Becky (Walker) has been stealing money from customers.
What unfolds from there is a study in peoples’ obedience to authority that would beggar belief if it wasn’t based on actual events. For a brief period of time, about 10 years ago, this happened more than 70 times.
With the policeman (quickly exposed as a fantasist) hanging on the line, Becky is strip-searched and humiliated through a lengthy process that director Zobel skillfully manages to make as uncomfortable for the viewer as it is for Becky. Her pleas for mercy go unheard as first Sandra, then her other employees and finally Sandra’s fiancee – who doesn’t even work at the chicken shop – acquiesce to the unseen power at the other end of the telephone.
Zobel came up with the idea for Compliance after reading about experiments carried out in the early 1960s by psychologist Stanley Milgram. His examination of how people willingly obey authority figures, even as their conscience tells them that what they are being asked to do is wrong, was an attempt to find out whether the likes of Adolf Eichmann was just following orders.
Compliance is as uneasy a watch as this suggests. All credit for this must go to Walker, who channels vulnerability and confusion, and Dowd, who questions nothing until it’s way too late. Compliance is also deeply frustrating, with the disbelief at what is unfolding making for an intriguing experience.
In a well-structured 90 minutes, Compliance turns a few stones over, revealing not only some shoddy work conditions that millions face each and every day, but also how disenfranchised workers have become in an era that is all about the self and in no way about fraternity.
It also speaks of a culture of subservience that is endemic in modern society – people have stopped questioning many things; most damagingly of all they are complicit in accepting the voice of authority.
Albert Einstein would approve.