Yes, writer-director Craig Zobel's unsettling drama Compliance provides a harrowing true-life demonstration of the infamous Milgram experiment, in which participants blindly deferred to an authority figure. But even though visceral unpleasantness often takes center stage, the film packs an even greater philosophical punch.
The fact-based story finds fast-food restaurant manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) receiving a disturbing phone call on a particularly hectic Friday. The police officer on the other end of the line (Pat Healy) claims that a customer has accused teenage employee Becky (Dreama Walker) of stealing from her purse. The officer just wants Sandra's help to get to the bottom of the accusation. From there, what begins as a simple search of Becky goes to unexpectedly dark places.
Zobel sets up his scenario brilliantly, making the manager's acquiescence to questionable orders as much a function of fear of losing her job as blind obedience. He also explores the subtle psychology of manipulation, as the caller alternates between gentle sympathy for those he's speaking to and demands that they respect his authority - or else. Dowd's phenomenal performance, meanwhile, captures the way fundamental insecurity can lead to incomprehensible decisions. (An incident involving a freezer being left open overnight has made Sandra particularly anxious about interaction with her superiors.) It's a perfect touch that she's less concerned about stashing a naked employee's clothing in her car than she is with the possibility of trash being noticed in that car.
Zobel only makes one truly ill-advised choice, as we eventually see too much of the caller in a performance that steers the focus into awkward "monster next door" territory. There may have been no perfect way to get to the real-life details, but this approach feels forced. It's a much more terrifying story when the monster isn't the man on the phone, but the thing in our heads that tells us he's not actually a monster.