Note: Detailed spoilers in the plot descriptions and analysis.
When reading material related to the film Compliance and the incident it reenacts, the famous Milgram experiment keeps popping up again and again (for a general overview, here’s a link to the Wikipedia page). The page talks about agentic state theory, where “the essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view themselves as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and they therefore see themselves as responsible for their actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow.” The results of the Milgram experiment showed that about 2/3rds of the participants were willing to provide fatal shocks to other people, simply because they were being told to do so by someone exerting control over them. A very similar phenomenon is happening with the events detailed in Compliance.
There’s a key quote in this very detailed article from Dr. Thomas Blass, who wrote a book on the Milgram experiments: “They had the critical ability to decide whether to carry out their orders.” Ultimately, my feeling is that it comes down to that ability of choice. Sandra had the choice to step back and come to the realization that something wasn’t right, but she didn’t for a long time and when she finally did the damage was already done. Becky made the choice to comply with the increasingly outrageous orders. Kevin made the choice of not going along with the caller’s orders, but he also made the choice to not stand up further for Becky. Marti made the choice to blindly follow the orders of Sandra even though the situation clearly wasn’t acceptable. Van made the choice to cave in to the caller completely, pushing things so far over the limit one would have thought was even possible. Finally, the maintenance man made the choice to question the situation, knocking some sense into everyone around him. I’m not sure this all speaks to the dark desires within us humans to conform to authority, because I think other factors are at play, such as the timidity on the part of Becky and the youthful inexperience of Kevin and even just simple gullibility on the part of almost everyone. Only with Van did those hidden dark desires manifest themselves completely. That idea of agentic state theory pops up again at the very end, when Sandra proclaims herself to be a victim. This is a way for her to deny her own culpability in the events, even though by complying to the orders from the other end of the phone she was playing for own complicit role in the situation. There’s a moment when the interviewer shows her footage of her walking in on a naked Becky at a late stage of the incident and not reacting. This moment really sends the message of the film home, the idea that a person could surrender themselves over to control so willingly that they would become blind to the horrors happening around them.
Getting away briefly from all the subtext, the actual construction of the film itself has both its strong and weak points. For me, the acting starts off on a real false note, with attempts at “real” conversations that come across as strangely inauthentic. Bizarrely, as the film moves away from the normal scenarios at the beginning, the performances become more and more believable. The decision to reveal the caller around the halfway point felt like an act of bad faith on the part of the filmmakers. His presence is much more potent as just a voice on the other end of a phone, and his reveal doesn’t amount to much beyond the now-somewhat-clichéd “he’s just an ordinary family man” twist. Yes, this was how it was in reality, but the film is not really about him, it’s about the people he’s manipulating. Lastly, it’s a cruel film in many ways, obviously, but not just because of the subject matter but also because of its negatively one-note perspective on humanity. I do think the film slightly undermines its point by not at least acknowledging the other times over the years when the caller’s targets were not fooled, when the store managers made the choice to not go along with the directions. Maybe the filmmakers didn’t think it was necessary to include that kind of information at the end, but I think it would have given at least a little reassuring shimmer of hope to a film that is otherwise oppressively bleak in both its content and its overall implications.
With all that said, the film is undeniably effective, and the implications of these kinds of incidents/experiments are genuinely frightening. Does everyone have that dark side to them, that subconscious desire to comply to orders? My instinct tells me no, that in most cases something like the events shown in this film would never be allowed to escalate out of control, but the large number of times the caller was able to assert his will over his targets over a span of several years suggests a different answer. Despite some of the false notes of the film itself, it is very effective at confronting us with that idea, and that question of what we would do if we were put in a similar kind of situation, and for that I would label it as a success. 7/10.