“A call to a McDonald’s restaurant in Hinesville, Georgia in February 2003, [prompted] a female manager, who thought she was speaking with a police officer in the presence of [her boss], to lead a 19-year-old female employee who was, she was told, suspected of theft into the women’s bathroom, where she strip-searched her. She then brought in a 55 year-old male employee to perform a body cavity search of the girl to uncover hidden drugs.” — from a Wikipedia entry to a topic called “Strip Search Prank Call Scam.”

Craig Zobel‘s Compliance (Magnlia, 8.17) is based on the above-described incident. I saw it at Sundance 2012, and found it equal parts fascinating, amusing and mildly frustrating…not so much due to the way Zobel’s film unfolds, per se, as much as the incredibly clueless behavior of the principals, all but two of whom are so intimidated by the suggestion of “authority” from a stern male voice on the phone that it’s enough to compel them to treat a fellow employee like she’s an anti-social threat.

I kept thinking about the Milgram experiment of the early ’60s, in which people were told to ask questions of an unseen participant who was audible but located on the other side of a wall. When this participant answered a question incorrectly the person was directed to push a button that sent a jolt of electricity into the participant’s body, causing them to cry out. (The participants were actually acting and “in” on the experiment — the unwitting focus was the button-pusher.) As the cries got louder and louder, the button-pushers would tell the experiment organizers that they felt really badly about zapping the unseen guy and that they wanted to be excused from the experiment. But when they were told that they were obligated to complete the experiment and that they were absolved of all responsibility, 85% or 90% of them obliged and resumed with the button-pushing, unhappy and stressed-out but listening time and again to the screams.

It was asserted that the Milgram experiment proved that you could get almost any small-town resident to be a guard at a concentration camp, or something along those lines.

Ann Dowd is very good as the butch-boss manager of the fast-food restaurant, and Dreama Walker is the low-level employee who’s accused of theft and ordered to remove her clothing and submit to cavity probing, etc. The film pissed off a segment of the audience at Sundance screening, some of whom walked out and some of whom complained during the q & a. As I heard it, some felt that Compliance was basically a sexual exploitation film that was, in a sense, ogling Walker as much as the prank caller was in a non-visual way.

It is a kind of exploitation film on a certain level. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to a certain odd (i.e., queasy, creepy, guilty) form of titillation when Walker starts undressing, but the basic point is that there are many small-town sheep out there who will do whatever they’re told if you scare them enough. The constantly flashing “message” of the film is “question authority, question authority, question authority…”