‘Compliance’ and Our Desire to Please the Cops

Compliance, Craig Zobel’s terrific movie about a real series of events, in which fast-food restaurant employees were convinced by a prank caller posing as a police officer to detain and strip-search their coworkers, on the grounds that they’ve been accused of theft, is rooted in things like the Milgram experiment, which tested the extent to which group morality could drive individuals to do heinous things to other people:

But the movie, which comes out in August, is also subtly and importantly about how that desire to comply with a prevailing sense of what’s right is heightened when the police are involved (or people believe the police to be involved). In Compliance, the man on the phone takes Sandra, a supervisor at a fast food restaurant, someone who doesn’t have very much authority, and asks her to take on some of his. He tells her that Becky (Dreama Walker), one of her employees, has stolen money from a customer’s purse. It’s a small accusation, but it’s a weightier matter than the day-to-day operation of a restaurant. Until that point in the day, the biggest problem Sandra’s faced has been who left a freezer open, spoiling food. Even if she finds the culprit in that case, it’s a no-win situation for her: Sandra’s still going to be held responsible. The call from the man who says he’s a police officer, and his request for her help in detaining Becky, gives Sandra an opportunity to do something for which she’ll earn credit, even acclaim. Helping the police gives Sandra the opportunity, or so she thinks, to be not just a good employee, but a good citizen.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to see the law enforced and for justice to be done. But that’s not actually exactly the same thing as doing what the police ask, all of the time, without question. Compliance is about the danger of giving someone else the ability to validate your goodness and to ask you to collaborate with them without asking them to meet high standards of responsibility and ethics or verifying that they’re following the law and that their requests are in accordance with it. The mere assertion by the man on the phone that he’s a police officer is enough to get Sandra to follow his directions. And even if the man on the phone had been able to verify that he was a police officer, there’s something frightening about the implication that Sandra wouldn’t have questioned his orders even as they get more baroque and invasive. She values the promise of approval too much to verify or consider any of the steps she’s told she has to perform to receive it. There’s a lot of cultural conditioning behind Sandra’s values and her assumptions, whether it’s the way police procedurals regularly treat brutality as a way of communicating the stress of the job rather than a sign of rot, or the idea, presented even in a forthcoming episode of a wannabe-skeptical show like The Newsroom, that the police almost always arrest the right person and prosecutors almost always secure convictions. But trusting that a job title or a badge suddenly removes the possibility of fallibility, weakness, or evil from a person is a dangerous thing. Compliance will probably be read and reviewed as the story of a bizarre one-off incident. But that string of incidents couldn’t have happened outside a larger cultural context.