The yowls of indignation that erupted around a screening of “Compliance” at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year–the agitated complaints of rank voyeurism–now seem a little overheated.
The picture is unsettling, and sitting through it is sometimes uncomfortable. But the question it raises–how can people be so easily manipulated by authority figures to perform vile acts against their fellow human beings?–has been contemplated before.
The movie brings to mind the Nuremberg trials of top Nazis after World War II (in which “only following orders” was resoundingly disallowed as a defense) and the famous Milgram experiments of the early 1960s, in which volunteer subjects were directed to administer electrical jolts to an unseen person in another room, and continued to do so even as simulated howls of pain mounted.
The true story from which “Compliance” is drawn took place in 2004, at a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Kentucky. (We learn at the end that it was the last of more than 70 such incidents that occurred over the course of 10 years.) Here the location has been changed to a fictitious fast-food restaurant in small-town Ohio. It’s a busy place, managed by a flustery, middle-aged woman named Sandra (Ann Dowd).
One day, in mid-shift, she receives a phone call from a man identifying himself as “Officer Daniels.” He tells Sandra that one of her employees has been accused of stealing money from a customer’s purse. He says the complainant is right there with him, and that he also has Sandra’s regional manager on another line.
Read the full review at Reason.com.