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True tale ‘Compliance’ provokes visceral reaction from viewers

When Becky (DreamWalker) takes phone call from prank caller impersonating police officer Sandr(Ann Dowd) has manage situation.

When Becky (Dreama Walker) takes a phone call from a prank caller impersonating a police officer, Sandra (Ann Dowd) has to manage the situation.

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Updated: September 29, 2012 6:08AM

The Huffington Post said it “Might Be the Most Disturbing Movie Ever Made.”

At a screening in New York, a woman yelled a profanity and walked out. A number of other theatergoers also headed for the exits.

Time magazine called it “Torture Porn.”

After a screening at the Sundance Film Festival, a woman shouted, “Sundance, you can do better!” Other audience members stuck around so they could boo the director and the cast.

All this fuss and holler over “Compliance,” a tiny movie set almost entirely in a fast-food restaurant in a small town in Ohio.

Offensive? One can understand why some would walk out.

But that’s why “Compliance,” which opens in Chicago area theaters on Friday, is such an unsettling and unforgettable experience. It’s impossible to see this movie and not want to discuss it immediately afterward.

It’s not close to being the most disturbing movie ever made, but it’s one of the most thought-provoking studies of human behavior ever put on film.

No one would ever act that way. Right?

Based on a true story that took place in a McDonald’s in Kentucky in 2004, “Compliance” is set in a fictional “ChickWich” sandwich chain store in Ohio.

Writer-director Craig Zobel shoots in a casual, near-documentary style. We meet the ChickWich employees as they get ready for a busy Friday night.

The wonderful character actress Ann Dowd plays Sandra, the middle-aged manager who takes her job very seriously as she tries to wrangle the staff, most of them teenagers who are semi-dedicated at best.

Sandra is dealing with various crises when she receives a phone call from an “Officer Daniels,” who informs her there’s been a theft at the restaurant and the suspect is a young woman Sandra identifies as Becky (Dreama Walker). The police are also “observing her as part of a bigger investigation,” says Daniels.

From this point forward, “Compliance” becomes an observed social experiment. It’s pretty obvious to the viewer the caller isn’t really a cop, and we become incredulous as Sandra, Becky and other characters follow the increasingly bizarre and ultimately twisted orders of this man.

This is madness. Why is Sandra not demanding the officer show up in person? Why is Sandra’s boyfriend punishing and humiliating Becky just because the cop tells him to do so? Why is Becky complying and not asking for her parents, a lawyer, someone to help her? How could so many people fall for this manipulative creep issuing orders on the phone?

At the Television Critics Association press tour, Walker (who co-stars on ABC’s “Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23”) said she was surprised by the reaction to the film at Sundance.

“It was completely unexpected. I know it was a difficult film to stomach ... but I had no idea the reaction would be so visceral and so strong. ... [It’s better if] people know it’s based on true events. [That way] people that have sensitivity toward the subject won’t see it. The people that had such loud reactions at Sundance were people that never should have seen it in the first place.”

If you’re yelling at the screen, if you’re maintaining nobody would ever behave like that, you’re ignoring the jarring reality that sometimes people can and will do bizarre, even criminal things to one another merely because they’ve been instructed to do so.

Consider the Milgram experiment at Yale a half-century ago, in which subjects believed they were administering shocks to students who gave wrong answers. Even when the “victims” screamed in pain, many of the subjects continued to administer shocks.

Or the Stanford prison experiment of 1971, in which students were told to play guards and prisoners. They quickly assumed their roles, with the “guards” abusing the “prisoners” to the point where the planned two-week exercise was cut short after six days.

“Compliance” is actually quite faithful to the astounding events that took place in that Kentucky McDonald’s in 2004.

And that was just one of 70 such incidents that have taken place.


You watch “Compliance” and you think: I’d never do that. I’d never put up with that. I know that’s how I felt when I saw it.

Yet dozens of people in dozens of states really did fall for hoaxes just like the one portrayed in the film.

And that’s more disturbing than anything we see onscreen.

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