Compliance: Powerless to Leave the Cinema

By Jacqueline Lucas Palmer.

It’s hard to describe a more uncomfortable viewing in cinemas than this ‘truer than life’ captioned film by Craig Zobel. I witnessed people watching through their hands, I heard tight voices between arguing couples, and shrieks of nervous laughter leaking to dispel the tension. I even saw one person after another leave the Everyman Cinema. The question is, how far are we willing to go with employees and colleagues, when a phone call from a ‘police officer’ instructs us to hold said employee for theft and to strip search them at the office.

Powerful responses to the film can only trigger the victims and bullies in us, after all, our inner child has most likely suffered at the hands of a bully, a parent, a figure in authority, and that’s the part that will obey ‘police’ orders. The film cites the 1961 Milgram psychology experiment at Yale University, which explored whether Holocaust accomplices were simply following orders. In the experiment the participants were given the role of teacher and asked to administer electric shocks on their ‘learner’. Milgram’s conclusions showed how ordinary people were likely to follow orders by an authority, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being. Indeed there were 70 such incidents in the US of prankster calls involving abuse and rape that Compliance explores.

Sandra, the fast food restaurant manager (AnnDowd) plays it excellently, capturing the discomfort of her role, but eagerly winning brownie points when her perfect child tries to please and follow orders. Appointed to hold and search Becky (Dreama Walker) during a long and busy shift, she also hands her job to employees as she continues serving customers. “I did what I was told” she seems to brag when all is discovered. It is hard not to cry out in disbelief as we see them all following orders without twigging to a sexual pervert getting off on the line. We see how Sandra confirms Becky’s guilt with no shred of evidence, and does not call to check the officer’s id. Indeed she happily appoints her boyfriend Van to take charge, even though he is drunk and alone with the young naked Becky. All it takes is the odd familiar line of police jargon to confuse the prank caller’s perversity, as he asks Van to comment on her breasts, and spank her, so it really beggars belief. When the officer finally shows up and asks Becky why she didn’t refuse, “I just knew it was going to happen”. This sums up the experience of the viewer, as we witness the ‘true story’ impossibly unfold.

And which of us couldn’t admit to moments of submission, of being bullied, if not having experienced various forms of abuse. Harder still to imagine the manager or the prankster in us, who greets his little daughter after the call. It is with considerable relief when an employee gets the picture, and is able to stand up and refuse.

The cinema staff don’t often wait in the lobby to chat to movie goers, but after the film there was lively conversation, and when I squirmed noisily in my seat, for once there was not a single person who told me to be quiet. But this time the victim in me was rebelling, and would never have complied.