Compliance is the second feature from director Craig Zobel, and when it was shown at Sundance earlier this year, audience members reportedly booed and walked out. The concession worker at the theater where I recently saw it told me she hadn't yet worked up the nerve to watch it, and, while no one at the showing I attended booed or walked out, there was a lot of nervous whispering and disbelieving laughter, which soon enough turned to grim silence. Sitting through Compliance is an ordeal, and its meant to be.

The movie forces the audience to watch what happens when people unquestioningly follow orders, even when it results in harm to others. That Compliance is a small film is what makes the subject matter even more powerful. The setting is familiar and intimate: a fast-food restaurant on a busy winter Friday, manned by a skeleton staff of teenagers overseen by a harried middle-aged manager (Sandy, amazingly played by Ann Dowd).

Routine is broken when a caller identifying himself as a police officer asserts that one of the workers (Becky, played by Dreama Walker) has stolen from a customer, then deputizes Sandy to detain Becky and initiate an interrogation in the restaurant office, out of the sight of other employees and diners. The accused girl responds with increasing disbelief to the increasingly degrading demands of the unseen officer, relayed and carried out by the pliant Sandy: This is stupid, Becky says; there's no way it can keep going like this. But it does, and then it goes on some more, and then just when you think it has to stop, it goes even farther--with other employees dragooned into taking part while the late-afternoon rush kicks into gear on the other side of the door.

Unadorned writing and tight direction keep the main questions prominent: Why would ordinary people let themselves be talked into taking things to such lengths? Why wouldnt they rise up and say stop? The answer is that ordinary people are often only too willing to comply. Psychological studies like the infamous Milgrim obedience experiment, in which test subjects readily inflicted pain on innocents if the instructions came from an authority figure, demonstrate it. We like to think wed be brave enough, or aware enough, or smart enough to do the right thing in such instances, but maybe were not.

Few in Compliance are, least of all the hapless Sandy. Unsure, indistinctly middle-aged, clad in the color-coordinated scarf and blouse mandated by corporate for its female store managers, she's a ready mark for the smoothly manipulative presence on the phone. She's already having a crappy day--unruly staff, ungrateful regional supervisor, no pickles or bacon in the freezer. So she's eager to help, hungry for praise and validation, and blind not only to Becky's degradation but her own.

Amid the many unsettling moments is a low-key, single-shot scene outside the restaurant. Instructed by the voice on the phone to move important evidence to her car, Sandy sets out over the cracked parking lot, skirting piles of dirt-encrusted snow to reach her salt-grimed Subaru (model year 2001, the film makes sure to note). A discarded Styrofoam cup skitters across her path, but she's oblivious--she needs to hurry back to monitor the prisoner. Yet after depositing the evidence in the front seat as instructed, she stops to remove papers and cups littering the passenger side, lest she leave a bad impression for the officer arriving to retrieve it. It's an arresting segment, providing a momentary respite from the misery unfolding inside but also a sadly revealing glimpse of the neediness that makes Sandy so willing to help, so eager to please, so easy a mark. People who are hurting may prove more capable of hurting other people, especially if their actions are met with approval every step of the way. This is what gives Compliance such relevance and so much more immediacy than a psychological study, and what makes it work as art. 

Unquestioning compliance leads inexorably to complicity, and the locked office of a generic fast-food restaurant will spur thoughts of Abu Ghraib, concentration camps, and other arenas of atrocity. Sandy doesn't make these associations; in the end, explaining to another character that she was simply doing what she thought was expected of her, she blurts: It all seemed normal to me. Of course: She was only following orders. There's a beat, and then she switches to the topic of the weather--much less troubling to ponder since it involves no introspection.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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