In the early 1960s, the psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments at Yale University designed to determine how easily influenced people are by authority. Volunteers were asked to deliver a series of increasingly powerful electric shocks to a participant in another room. They were not able to see the other person, only hear them, and they were forcefully asked to carry out the task by one of Milgram's colleagues. The shocks were not real, and the person receiving them was merely an actor pretending to receive huge doses of electricity, but as far as the volunteers were concerned, it was all real. The majority of participants administered the full 450-volts to the unseen stranger, purely because they were told to by someone they perceived to have authority over them, and over the scared pleas of the actors, who eventually stopped talking, suggesting that they had lapsed into unconsciousness. These findings proved to be, if you'll pardon the pun, quite shocking.
Milgram would probably have had a lot to say about Craig Zobel's Compliance - though probably not as much as he would about the real-life events that inspired it. Much like his experiments, the events of the film revolve around ordinary people committing acts they would otherwise consider unconscionable purely because someone with power, or at least perceived power, tells them to. The film takes place over the course of one day and entirely within the confines of Chick-Wich, a fast food restaurant run by Sandra (Ann Dowd). The day starts out badly for Sandra as she learns that someone left the refrigerator door open overnight, spoiling thousands of dollars worth of meat, and things only get worse when she overhears some of her staff making fun of her.
Things take a very wrong turn when she receives a phone call from Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), a policeman who claims that Becky, (Dreama Walker) one of the servers at the restaurant, took money from a customer's purse. Daniels says that he will send some men over to collect Becky, but for the moment he needs Sandra to take her phone and purse from her, and to keep her at the restaurant until they can reach her. Then he says that Sandra needs to strip search Becky to determine where she has hidden the money. She does this somewhat willingly, believing that it will help expedite the situation, but it turns out to be only the first step in a complicated and uncomfortable process that finds Sandra, Becky and others doing whatever Daniels asks of them, no matter how questionable his requests might seem. After all, they are only following orders.
The tension in Compliance comes largely from Zobel's decision to depict the events in a slow, methodical manner that would be mundane if it wasn't so unsettling. There's minimal use of non-diegetic music - cues signal the arrival of new characters or an escalation of the situation, but most of the scenes play out over little more than the background noise of the busy restaurant - and he favours clinical distance to lurid fascination. The abuse Becky endures and the normal workings of Chick-Wich are depicted in the same clear-eyed, slightly aloof manner, which strengthens the reality of the former whilst making the latter seem sinister and weird. Compliance is about the banality of evil, and the way in which the most awful things can occur alongside the most pedestrian.
Authenticity is an important issue with regards to the film since the situation is so extreme that, were it not based on real events, the story could be dismissed as outlandish or exploitative, especially considering that Dreama Walker spends much of the film either naked or barely covered by an apron. However, Zobel is very careful to make the film an act of observation, rather than voyeurism. It's not a film designed to excite people, but to depict an actual, awful event in a methodical and removed fashion, making it ultimately more uncomfortable than titillating.
The performances go a long way to maintaining that tone, since all the actors give performances that are measured, matter-of-fact and almost painfully real. Dowd is the embodiment of harried middle-managers everywhere, desperate to resolve an issue that has been foisted on her as quickly as possible, even if the solution proves increasingly disturbing. She's something of an unwitting antagonist, and Dowd makes Sandra sympathetic even as she becomes both victim and accomplice in something utterly monstrous. Walker, meanwhile, is pitch perfect as a young girl trapped in a situation she doesn't understand, but similarly desperate to get it over with, and as such is entirely believable in her willingness to obey Officer Daniels' commands. The most impressive performance of the film comes from Pat Healy, who manages to be both jovial and menacing despite remaining unseen for the vast majority of the film. It takes a lot for a character to have presence without occupying physical space, and Healy is eerily convincing as someone who could convince someone of anything.
Without such a strong selection of grounded performances, it would be hard to believe that the characters would act in the way that they do, even with the knowledge that they are merely following the blueprint of reality. However, the combination of performances and icy tone ensure that Compliance proves to be an unsettling and engrossing indictment of blind obediance. It'd make for a great psychological experiment, had it not already been proved under distressingly real conditions.