Compliance: The Monster That Lurks Between the Ears

Few things are more dangerously corrupted than a human mind. The levels to which the human mind can stoop to is not only appalling, but also shocking. It’s a monster waiting to be unleashed, and thankfully only few human beings are twisted enough to take that extra step. And those who do, they in the process spawn stories of unprecedented horror. And that’s why movies based on true events are often disturbing in a way movies borne out of fictional stories can never be.

The American Indie movie, Compliance is based on one such true event. Rarely does a movie’s title say so much about the movie, and that too almost perfectly. Compliance, the act of conforming.


The bare bones of the movie at the outset seems really simple: The manager of ChickWick, a fast food restaurant in a small town of Ohio, gets a call from a police officer (“Officer Daniels,” he authoritatively declares.). The officer is quite confident (and unusually assertive) that one of the ChickWick employees has stolen money from a customer. He describes the said employee too. He tells the manager that the employee has two options: either go to jail, or be strip searched by the manager. The guy’s holding the phone on the other end, waiting for an answer. And this is not the last question he is going to ask.

Movies that are about an incident which forces the main character to be immobile make for gripping thrillers, and if executed with aplomb, make for an entertaining viewing. Two notable examples come to mind: Collin Farrel’s Phonebooth, and Ryan Reynold’s Buried. However, both these movies were enjoyable, but were largely forgettable, and twenty minutes into the movie, you might think Compliance will also probably end the same way, impact wise. But half way into the movie and the realization starts snaking on to you that the movie is way deeper than its trailer was willing to admit. The answer again, lies in its title. The willingness to accept and the obsession to dominate.

The extent could be debated, but human beings have an innate urge to dictate terms, to be in control, to be seen as an authority. In 1971, a study was carried out by Stanford’s  psychology professor to corroborate the same, which is now famously known as the ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’. Twenty-four male students were randomly selected and were divided into two groups, prisoners and wardens. And just within six days, the experiment rather disturbingly demonstrated that when bestowed with power, seemingly normal human beings can exhibit diabolical behavioral patterns. A brilliant German movie, Das Experiment (2001) was based on the same subject.

Although not everything is hunky-dory with the movie, somewhere around the one-third of the movie, you start getting a little fidgety, because the central conflict is a little flimsy. If someone is just getting pestered by a phone call, you would want to shout at the characters – just cut the damn call. But then, it did happen in real life, and not once or twice, but seventy times, in thirty-two different states of the US.And it did not occur to them to cut the call. The movie then slowly warms up to drive home another potent point – our obeisance to law makers, and how fast food joint’s employees are hard wired to please. How your job profile can quite subtly and chillingly shape the way you think, and behave, and more importantly cause your subordinates to behave.

There are nuggets like these throughout the movie: that there are far too many people sitting on the fringe, and all they need is a little push. It’s also about how a lesser fulfilled life can give you a warped sense of identity and force you to do things, you shouldn’t. And how at times, fantasy can play out in grotesque ways in real life.

What makes the movie even more compelling is that it doesn’t attempt to peddle cheap shocks. A lesser skilled director would have milked the disturbing scenes to the hilt, but instead Craig Zobel reveals the disconcerting truth in fragments, and it is this possibility of what would have actually happened, sends a frigid bolt through the spine.

Compliance goes deep into the alcove of human brain which revels in perverse domination. It’s not a pleasant sight, but the knowledge of debased human mind, and the extent it can deign to, is not only important, it’s necessary.

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