Trailer for Compliance, a movie that explores obedience to authority

Compliance is a psychological thriller based on a true event in which a sociopath pretending to be a cop called a fast food joint and convinced the manager to do horrific things to a young employee. It sounds like the Milgram Experiment in the real world.

From the New York Times:

“Compliance” came into focus when [director Craig Zobel] learned about the 2004 case of a man who called a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Ky., and persuaded the female manager to interrogate and strip-search a female employee. Mr. Zobel was amazed to discover that this story was part of a wider pattern; the culprit was a serial prankster, and similar incidents had been reported at other chain restaurants.
From the movie's YouTube trailer description:

[Video Link]When a police officer tells you to do something, you do it. Right?

Inspired by true events, COMPLIANCE tells the chilling story of just how far one might go to obey a figure of authority. On a particularly busy day at a suburban Ohio fast food joint, high-strung manager Sandra (Ann Dowd (Garden State) receives a phone call from a police officer saying that an employee, a pretty young blonde named Becky (newcomer Dreama Walker) has stolen money from a customer. Convinced she's only doing what's right, Sandra commences the investigation, following step-by-step instructions from the officer at the other end of the line, no matter how invasive they become. As we watch, we ask ourselves two questions: "Why don't they just say no?" and the more troubling, "Am I certain I wouldn't do the same?"

The second feature from director Craig Zobel (the man behind the 2007 Sundance hit Great World of Sound), COMPLIANCE recounts this riveting nightmare in which the line between legality and reason is hauntingly blurred. The cast delivers startlingly authentic performances that make the appalling events unfolding onscreen all the more difficult to watch -- but impossible to turn away from. Delving into the complex psychology of this real-life story, COMPLIANCE proves that sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.

NYT: Oh, I Wouldn’t Do That, Would I? ‘Compliance’ Raises Questions About Human Behavior


  1. Speaking of the Milgram Experiments, the 1975 teleplay ‘The Tenth Level’, with William Shatner, is on youtube

  2. Compliance is a psychological thriller based on a true event in which a sociopath pretending to be a cop called a fast food joint and convinced the manager to do horrific things to a young employee. 

    They also did a “Law & Order: SVU” episode based on that incident a few years ago. Robin Williams played the antagonist.

    1. “Law and Order: SUV“?  For crying out loud, how many dang spin-offs are they going to make? And traffic court sounds like a pretty boring premise anyway.

      1. So? It’s the R rating that kills a movie.

        I bet you wouldn’t have to look far at all to find a PG-13 rated flick with far more extreme content…

        The MPAA are a bunch of capricious fucks with a Republican WASP agenda of pure evil. Think that’s a bit harsh? Check out what their British arm has been up to: (original source article is down, mirrored here:

  3. When a police officer tells you to do something, you do it. Right?

    Umm… no,  not always.

    “Am I certain I wouldn’t do the same?”

    Yes, absolutely.  Anyone wants someone strip-searched is going to have to do it themselves.  I don’t have the authority to do that, and no one has the authority to order me to do that… not over the phone.  

    In person, with a gun – maybe.  Otherwise?  Not my job.  Nor my obligation.

    1. I’m sure most participants in Dr. Milgram’s experiment wouldn’t have believed they were capable of such blind obedience to authority either… until they were actually put in that situation. We all like to believe that we’ll always stand by our ideals, but the truth is we’ll never know until they are put to the test.

      1.  When I was an undergrad, my psychology professor gave an exam where one of the questions asked whether you would comply if you took part in the Milgram experiment. Only those students who answered “Yes” were marked correct – thinking that you wouldn’t just meant you didn’t really understand the results of the experiment…

        1. As someone who marched into the principal’s office on the first day of first grade to complain about how my teacher was treating one of my fellow students, I would have protested that grade.

          1. Amen, brother.  I was always a troublemaker about that kind of crap.

            Here’s what I’d tell that professor:

            Drawing sweeping, ironclad conclusions from a sample set as small as the Milgram experiment is utterly indefensible.

            You might reasonably conclude that MOST people would comply – but I am not most people.  

            Not everyone is.

            The quasi-hypnotic dynamic of unquestioning group compliance can be disrupted by one single resistant individual   – and when that crack appears, the whole authoritarian edifice can crumble in moments.

            I’ve seen it happen.  

            So don’t tell me you know what I’d do.

            (Assuming, that is, that I’d even bother talking to such a nitwit.  I was never much one for worrying about grades given by nitwits.)

        2.  The Milgram experiments didn’t show that Everyone would administer the ‘shocks’, merely that a majority of people would

          1. Actually, every participant DID administer at least some of the shocks. Something like 30-40 percent of participants refused to administer the final, “fatal” shock but even among these not a single one demanded an end to the experiment.

            The main takeaway: we may have different thresholds for how far we will follow authority (or perceived authority), but pretty much anyone can be convinced to do things that should rightfully make us shudder.

      2. Speak for yourself. I’m always the first guy to stand up and tell the Man to get fucked.

        Nobody’s Milgramming me, I’m an anarchist to the core; it doesn’t matter who tells me to do anything – I always want to know why first. I only comply if I agree or of course, if under duress.

        If you’re smarter than most folks, how couldn’t you loathe being dictated to by your intellectual inferiors?

        1. Sure, pat yourself on the back and claim how you are different.

          These sociological experiments are remarkably powerful in their conclusions. The likeliness of people to comply is based on three factors:
          1. The presence of authority,
          2. The respect for the group, and
          3. The size of the group.

          I don’t think most people would sexually assault a coworker based upon a cop calling over the phone. But some might. I do think most people would hurt a human being if everyone in the group agreed, you respect the group, there is a leader, and the group is of a reasonable size. Many war crimes by every type of  group (including anarchists) have fit these criteria.

          Sorry, but you are a human being. You are programmed to do horrible things if the conditions are right. Only people who clearly understand the psychology and sociology involved and then recognize the pattern have a fighting chance at making the ethical decision, genius or not.

          1. So the next question is: “Does knowing about the Milgram experiment make you less likely to comply with such orders if you were actually going to encounter them?”

            I’m sure plenty of intelligent people have clicked on sketchy links on the internet or fallen for phishing scams here or there, but are they as likely to be taken advantage of in the future based on their experience? Can’t people learn and become more suspicious? I imagine you’d have to come up with a new variation with the Milgram experiment if you wanted to fool someone who knew about it.

        2. Nobody’s Milgramming me, I’m an anarchist to the core; it doesn’t matter who tells me to do anything…

          I’m sure that’s a very reassuring thought.

          If you’re smarter than most folks, how couldn’t you loathe being dictated to by your intellectual inferiors?

          Over 49 percent of human beings are smarter than most folks. Examine any mass atrocity in human history and you’ll find many of the participants were part of that 49 percent. There were doubtlessly plenty who loathed doing it, and plenty who hated themselves afterward, but they did it anyway.

          We ignore our own nature at our peril. If you’re serious about standing up to authority in a bad situation then your best chance is in recognizing the lessons of Dr. Milgram’s experiments, not dismissing them.

          1. Intelligence doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with it. There is doubtless a not-insignificant portion of the population that doesn’t need an authority figure’s instruction to commit atrocities, and an even larger chunk who are champing at the bit just waiting for the merest imprimatur — “Sic ’em!”

            You generally don’t get to be a successful serial killer or a high-ranking official in a murderous regime by being a bumbling idiot. And if you are one of those participants who loathes what he’s doing, I suspect it’s more often fear keeping you in line than psychological manipulation. I bet a lot more of Milgram’s subjects would have complied 100% if they’d been told that otherwise they’re next.

          2. I’m not dismissing Milgram’s experiment; I find it utterly chilling.

            But there’s no fucking way I’d be in the 65% who fail the test in a pink fit. I’m not just smarter than 49% of folks, I’m smarter than 98%.

            This tends to lead to misanthropism and a superiority complex; my fellow humans usually don’t fail to disappoint… but from time to time I do feel compelled to set an example, almost certain futility notwithstanding.

            And anything vaguely Milgrammish eminently constitutes a perfect opportunity.

          3. @Kimmo:

            I’m not just smarter than 49% of folks, I’m smarter than 98%.

            This tends to lead to misanthropism and a superiority complex…

            Don’t discount the possibility that your self-assessment is the result of a superiority complex.

      3. I wasn’t talking about the Milgram experiment, I was talking about strip-searching someone at the behest of a voice on the telephone.

        It’s got nothing to do with “standing by my ideals.” I’m not opposed to strip searches as a matter of some sort of sacred principal.  

        I’m probably about as likely to blindly comply with authority as most cranky old pragmatic anarchists, but you have to actually have some evidence of authority – a badge; a gun; a warrant –  something.  

        I just don’t take orders from random voices on the phone, is all.

        1. Aaaaaaannnd you probably don’t work in a fast food joint, either. The caller targeted fast food restaurants for a reason — because the environment was already rife with arbitrary rules and receiving praise for being a blind-follower. The caller simply knew how to manipulate people who were already caught in that framework.

          Milgram and other like experiments showed that symbols and context were all very important:

          * if it’s for science, more people will comply, because they will assume the experiment has constraints on it that make it fit into standards
          * if it’s for the law, more people will comply, because they want to be lawful
          * if it’s for the church, more people will comply, because they want to be faithful

          Now, maybe none of those groups impress you. Maybe you see yourself as a lone wolf.

          But if someone can find something you feel a strong sense of belonging to (I don’t know, the Boing Boing commenting forum?), they can lead you down the garden path, and you will comply.

          Even from the trailer, you can see that the caller doesn’t just ring up and say, “hey, that blonde girl doing cash, bring her into the office and get her to strip, ‘cos, you know, I’m a cop and I say so.” He softens them up first.

    2. Now I find you totally terrifying. Because you just described yourself as invulnerable, just based on either ego, or maybe some previous experience. I’d rather be around who knows their limits, or at the very least believes in their existence.

      I did my share of standing up to the authority, and my fair share of subjecting to it when I shouldn’t. And I’ll remain extremely suspicious of anyone claiming they were never in the wrong. I find it more likely they were so deeply in the wrong they’d rather twist the facts or the morals than admit it. Or maybe they were just *that* lucky, then, but if that’s true, I’d still be careful, because there’s no way to tell what a person believing in their own invulnerability faces the reality for the first time will do.

  4. Egads.  Scary how easy it is to manipulate people…
    I wonder what the overlap is between “authoritarianism” and “credentialism”?

  5. The trailer is in one way or another instructing you to go and see the film. That means if you go and see the film, you are complying with the instructions of a stranger. This would show that you are relatively easy to manipulate psychologically. So I would recommend that you follow my instructions, and don’t go and see the film. In this way you would be proving that you are not blindly compliant.

    1. I’m going to flip a coin to decide whether to see the film, proving that I am only blindly compliant to the instructions of pocket change.

      1. Cleverly avoiding blind compliance to the trailer by not seeing the film, and avoiding compliance to my instruction not to see the film by seeing the film, by complying to pocket change whatever it decides, still implies blind compliance to a stranger, and a worrying underestimation of that stranger’s power, which your use of the word “only” betrays . For isn’t pocket change a stranger of sorts, and not just in a “pay by card only” sort of way?

        1. Solution: Go to the movie, but talk on the phone the whole time. Bonus points for pretending to be taking instructions from a guy pretending to be a cop.

        2. What if you were inclined to see the movie whether or not you had  seen the trailer?

          Or to put it in grade school terms:

          Kid A (Radiohead reference unintended): You can’t tell me what to do!

          Kid B: Yes, I can. Breathe!

          Kid A: That doesn’t count. I was going to breathe anyway!

          1. I guess it means the only way to see it is that you happened to somehow end up in the cinema without meaning to go in there and not knowing what the film was. You’d not have to have heard about it in any way. That’s the only non-compliant way it could be done.

          2. But what if you never saw the trailer and only read a description of the movie that didn’t include a command to see it?

  6. And all this was done VIA PHONE?! Unbelievable.

    If some stranger called me and told me to strip search somebody- it’s not gonna happen. Say what you want about not knowing until you’re actually put in that situation, but no. Not via phone, not in person. It’s not my job to strip search people.

    Maybe that attitude is why I’ve quit so many jobs.

    1. Yeah. If it’s really so vitally important, the police can do it themselves. If the police ask you to do anything over the phone, you should immediately get the badge number and call into the station. Let real police know. The most the police can do over the phone is ask for info. If an officer asks for you to gather material evidence or anything like that, they aren’t doing their job anyway.

    2.  All this was done over the phone… over fifty times, at different restaurants, by the same caller.

  7. Really the obvious thing to do is refuse to cooperate, in the rudest way possible. Then go into a foul-mouthed ‘Fuck the Police’ tirade. Of course, when they demand your name you give them the name of that guy at work you don’t like, just in case. 

  8. I’d like to take this opportunity to state that JIMWICh is not related or connected to ChickWich in any way, and that I’m highly non-compliant in these sorts of things.

  9. This was one of the best movies at Sundance. And yes, it’s a real life example of the Milgram Experiment. Also, the setting of fast food wage slavery gives it some topical punch. 

  10. As someone who was accused of stealing in a retail environment, this premise doesn’t seem so ridiculous to me. I was harassed in a highly emotionally-charged way and ended up sobbing, only to be asked “Why are you crying if you didn’t do it?” Putting the situation in a work-hierarchy context makes it much more believable to me. One of the big places where people have a lot of power over you is at the workplace, especially at places like chains that don’t exactly always value their employees.

  11. There’s also a very powerful independent horror movie called Shellter that explores this sort of territory, released in 2009. Writer/director/producer/etc Dan Donley has a masters in psychology. It references both the Milgram experiments and the Stanford prison experiment in an apocalyptic setting.

  12. Maybe it’s different for Americans, but we (New Zealand) don’t have the same blind obedience towards authority that you seem to, nor do the police here react so crazily if you defy them, we had 3 police arrive on one of our fishing trawlers and they asked to do things, we refused, they asked why, we explained that they had no authority to do so as it was covered by a different government department and they left, I can’t help thinking had the same thing happened in the states we would have been cuffed and held at gunpoint, having seen plenty of youtube videos showing this kind of reaction to any kind of defiance.

    So no I think were I the manager at a fast food joint and the police phones and started requesting things, I would ask them to come down to the restaurant and rang off.

    1. I can’t help thinking had the same thing happened in the states we would have been cuffed and held at gunpoint

      Maybe.  Maybe not. “The states” is not one monolithic place.  Law enforcement is mostly local, at the county and city level, and the variation from one place to another can be huge.

      (And no matter where you are, attitude almost always makes a difference.   A calm, polite, respectful refusal generally goes a lot farther than, y’know, telling the pigs to fuck off, as it were.)

      The YouTube outrages are more the exception than the rule in most places.  People rarely post YouTube videos of their encounters with polite, professional cops doing their job well. :-)

      I can assure you, though, that I’ve met many such cops here in the states, over the course of a long and colorful career doing peculiar things that have occasionally attracted police attention. :-)  

      (I’m not claiming asshole cops are rare, mind you – just that they’re still a minority in most jurisdictions.)

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