Compliance: Abu Ghraib in a fast-food joint

Craig Zobel’s low-budget movie is a disturbing tale of what people are willing to do in the apparent presence of authority.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

Topics Politics

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Milgram and Zimbardo: two names that have successfully fired-up generations of bored sixth-formers and launched a thousand psychology degrees.

Their equally infamous experiments – Milgram’s in 1961 and Zimbardo’s 10 years later – raised tantalising questions about the limits of our humanity. More specifically, they suggested that authority and power can strip us of that humanity in a heartbeat. In Milgram’s experiment, the vast majority of subjects proved willing – albeit hesitantly – to administer 450 volts to another human being so long as a man in a white coat told us to. Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment showed that all it takes is some reflective aviator shades and a guard uniform to turn nice college boys into sadistic slave drivers, bent on breaking and humiliating the ‘prisoners’ who, just a few days before, they would have been enjoying a drink with in the union bar.

These were studies haunted by the Holocaust. Milgram’s took place the year in which Adolf Eichmann was brought to trial in Israel for sending innumerable Jews to the ghettos and then death camps of Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. Eichmann’s defence? ‘I was only following orders.’ The young researcher wanted to see if the average American Joe would do the same, while his former school chum Zimbardo would later wonder what hellish acts his participants could commit when given their own taste of authority.

Milgram and Zimbardo’s conclusions saw real-life expression in the photos surfacing from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where soldiers sexually humiliated battered detainees. But for my money, it’s a lesser-known incident, unfurling in an unremarkable suburb in the southern USA, that really sends a shiver down the spine – if nothing for else for the irrepressible normalcy of the players involved.

It is this bizarre and horrific day in the life of a bog-standard fast-food joint in Mount Washington, Kentucky in 2004 that Craig Zobel takes for the subject of Compliance, a film that has had Sundance patrons storming out of screenings and this intrepid reviewer left with a lasting, swirling sensation of existential dread.

It all begins in a cosily banal universe: one in which the mumsy, jobsworth manager of the ludicrously named ChickWich restaurant (Ann Dowd), is being berated by a disgruntled higher-up for letting a month’s supply of bacon and pickles spoil on her watch. She passes on the anger to her gaggle of employees – complete with greasy adolescents and a feisty ethnic – before starting the day as usual. But dark forces are about to sneak into this familiar world, and leave behind an irrevocable stain.

Someone’s off sick, the restaurant is low on supplies and the lunchtime rush will soon be upon them. It is then that the office phone rings. Someone calling themselves Officer Daniels (Pat Healy, chilling) is on the other end of the line. In a familiarly pompous and beleaguered tone, he says there’s been a report that one of her staff – a vaguely described ‘young blonde’ – has been stealing from customers. Happy to play deputy, Sandra fetches Becky (Dreama Walker), a petulant, flirtatious teen who works the cash register.

Confined to the pokey back-room office and playing out in claustrophobic near real-time, we see the scene go from the strange to absurd to downright nasty.

While Becky and various dragged-in co-workers protest, Sandra blithely obliges the policeman when he suggests that an on-the-spot strip search will make things easier for everyone. As Sandra, again ‘only following orders’, leaves Becky’s clothes in her unlocked car – supposedly ready for inspection when Daniels arrives – things almost descend into farce. However, this is more than a prank gone too far. In one stomach-turning utterance, the caller refers to his helpless nubile victim as ‘sweetie’, belying the perverted, by-proxy jollies he’s extracting from the scene.

With Zobel’s engrossing script sticking unremittingly to the real events, Sandra invites her seemingly good-natured, doughboy fiancé Van (Bill Camp) to watch the captive so she can get back to work. You’d be right to think this doesn’t bode well.

Compliance catches you rather off guard, so much so it’s hard to work out its intentions. At times it feels merely exploitative, us getting our kicks alongside the anonymous caller, but there’s a reconciling raw naturalism to it, too, and the image of humanity it holds up to scrutiny is not quite as lowly as first appearances suggest.

While it may be an unwavering glance into our often hellishly blasé regard for one another in the presence of a perceived authority, it’s as much a detailing of a bizarre, one-off feat of misdirection and mind-control – the caller playing all the right angles and pushing the right buttons like a sadistic Derren Brown. This in turn saves Compliance from being a headshaking exercise in shaming some dumb, feral hicks, taking steps to show us the unique happenstance conditions and expert manipulation that produced this horrific incident.

As was later revealed, while Milgram may have found that over 80 per cent of his guinea pigs were willing to turn the voltage dial into the red, the real-life Kentucky fast-food incident was only one out of hundreds of presumed-to-be connected incidents that got this far. But ending as it begins, with a strong sense of the banal, Compliance leaves us with a most unsettling notion: given the right conditions, this could have happened to anyone.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for Compliance here:

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Topics Politics


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