Film Capsule: Compliance

Way back in the early 60s, Behavioral Psychologist Stanley Milgram embarked upon a decade-long series of experiments, geared toward confirming the majority of human beings are more prone toward obeying orders out of a rote sense of fear or responsibility than they are toward making conscientious decisions based upon sound principles and logic.

In the most famous of Milgram’s experiments, he placed 40 test subjects alone in a booth – one at a time – and ordered them to push a corresponding series of buttons that they were told would administer a shock to another participant on the opposite side of the wall (These non-visible “participants” were actually Yale undergrads, all of whom were in on the experiment).

As the voltage levels rose higher, Milgram’s “participants” were instructed to protest, cry out, and, eventually – once the shock levels began to exceed 400 volts – stop responding altogether. Every time a test subject protested, Milgram and his assistants would insist that it was OK to proceed… that they were all just following orders … that it was really just part of a university experiment … that every subject had a contractual responsibility to see the experiment through to its conclusion.

Here’s the real shocker: Roughly 65% of Milgram’s original test subjects – most of them highly-educated, ivy league students or colleagues – continued zapping all the way up to the 450-volt mark. This despite the fact that all corresponding participants on the opposite side of the wall had long since been rendered completely unresponsive.

It’s this very same dynamic that lies at the crimson heart of Craig Zobel’s Compliance – a dark and ultimately despairing drama that dares to ask the question, “Just how far would you go?”

Compliance is brilliantly constructed … set in a non-descript, Podunk town where you get the sense people wouldn’t actually be in the habit of questioning authority, let alone flat-out refusing to do what they were told. What’s more? There’s already considerable Oscar buzz for both Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker, the latter of whom takes a very gutsy left turn about a quarter of the way through this film … the irreversible kind that can ultimately make or break any aspiring movie actor’s career.

The only major drawback here is that Compliance is based almost entirely upon a premise that delves deeper – all the while proving more cringe-worthy – as the movie rolls along … approaching levels of sheer absurdity as the film inches toward its climax (pun intended).

In fact, it’s the exact type of absurdity that might lead one to dismiss a film like Compliance as being completely too far-fetched. That is until one got home and conducted a quick Google search under the film’s name, only to find the broad premise was actually based on a true story … suggesting – once again – that perhaps Stanley Milgram had it right all along.

(Compliance opens in select cities nationwide tomorrow.)