Quick Film Diagnosis: Compliance


Would you do anything just because you were told?  Steal?  Lie?  Hurt someone? 

These are loaded questions that likely elicits immediate defensiveness.  Most people think that they would not carry out an activity solely because a person told them to, especially if it involved harming someone else.   Unfortunately, both historical events (ex. Nuremberg trials) and psychological research (most notably, Stanley Milgram’s crazy unethical experiments on obedience) show otherwise.   Humans are actually incredibly susceptible to comply with demands from authority figures, despite the activity asked and even if said figures do not threaten to harm or punish the person they are exerting power over—Just asking is enough.  

With this in mind, do you think you would be as susceptible to obey an authority figure if you only communicated with them over the phone?  We all probably have personal presumptions of how we would act, but Craig Zobel (of Homestar Runner fame) arguably answers it best in his haunting and disturbingly accurate film, Compliance.  Compliance details a slightly synthesized account of the very real “strip search phone call scam” that particularly played out in Mount Washington in 2004.  The true story is insane and the movie is no different—people really did carry out the most ridiculous actions simply because they were told over the phone to by a (clever, absolutely sociopathic) stranger claiming to be a police officer.  This included strip searching employees, conducting cavity searches, and far worse—and Compliance doesn’t hide from any of them.  It is a taut and unrelenting thriller that exposes this unsettling human tendency to comply.  It is a very brave film for this reason and is successful thanks to its even braver actors.  Ann Dowd is Oscar-level caliber here and Dreama Walker is fearless; both actresses go all in and the result is an almost hypnotic dynamic that only intensifies as the film progresses.   

Admittedly, Compliance is sometimes hard to watch due to its content, but I still recommend it, especially to mental health professionals who work with clients that can’t seem to break their habits of listening to abusive figures.  The film effectively shows that it doesn’t even matter who it is or what is being demanded:  It’s hard for almost everyone to defy authority–no matter the consequences–when the conditions are right.  

Watch it When: You’re in full on dedicated-cinephile mode or full on curious-psychologist mode.

While You Watch: What are the stakes associated with noncompliance?

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