November 4, 2021

The Unacceptable Truth of Compliance

Est. Reading: 4 minutes

Craig Zobel’s 2012 movie Compliance is a great film but I hate it. Watching it was a strain. When it was shown in theaters there were numerous people who walked out. At Canne people yelled at the screen and booed but there’s a good chance it wasn’t because they felt that the movie was badly made. Its more likely they were unable to accept what it depicts. I myself quit halfway through and had to come back later. The film opened with enormous text across the screen that read “Inspired by true events” but I took little notice. Using the word “inspired” is a license to write whatever fiction pops into your head.

When I stopped the film a little less than halfway through I dropped the title into Google just to see what I could find. After reading a few different articles it was clear that what was depicted in the movie really happened. The film reenacts the events surrounding a phone call made by David R. Stewart who called a McDonald’s in Kentucky posing as a policeman. He convinced the manager that one of her employees was seen stealing from a customer. Through careful manipulation Stewart got the manager to sequester the 18 year old female employee in the back room and strip search her. Stewart even managed to get other employees involved and eventually he induced one of them to rape her.

I tried a lot of mental gymnastics to avoid accepting that this was true, but everything depicted in the film was in the police reports and corroborated by the people involved and then there were the 70 other times that this happened in other locations. To be clear not all of the occurrences ended in rape. Stewart had varying levels of success. Frustrated and befuddled I went back and watched the rest of the movie.

I can remember having a similar feeling when I watched Christian Carion’s Joyeux Noël. The film takes place in World War One and is based on a true story. Beginning on Christmas Eve two sets of opposing trenches, one occupied by the The English and the other by The Germans, stopped fighting. Then they sang together. Then they played soccer! Then they made friends and refused to fight. Like Compliance its a ridiculous premise except that its all true. If I hadn’t known this going in to Joyeux Noël I might have turned it off as well. I would have thought it was a well made but ridiculous movie that tried to depict something that just wasn’t plausible. In addition I would have found it offensive. So many young men died in a war they had little control over and to make a film that made peace so simple and so obvious would be to degrade all the efforts of those who died terrible, lonely, deaths in the trenches, but it all really happened and instead of being offensive it provides hope for humanity.

The fact that Joyeux Noël is true uplifts us all. The fact that Compliance is true does the exact opposite. Many of the reviews and analyses I read about Compliance brought up the infamous Milgram study as well as Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison study, but both these experiments seem so much more plausible than getting a young girl to willingly participate in her own rape simply because a man calling himself a police officer told her to over the phone.


I wish Compliance was different. I wish it had been more nuanced or revealing, but it is very matter of fact. The empty banality of the dialogue and behavior of the characters is very likely far more accurate than the gripping drama of a well crafted thriller. These are ordinary people working in an ordinary fast food place who unexpectedly found themselves following orders. It occurs to me that the word “orders” is a pun. They were restaurant employees following orders. Perhaps the context of where this happened contributed to their compliance. They were in their place of work where they were trained to “take” orders and please the customer, but even so this just seems like a rationalization.

It is possible that in the 70 times this scenario was enacted some of the abuse was perpetrated by people who only needed an opportunity to indulge their desires. Perhaps these horrible events speak more about arousal than compliance. We can be swept away by our own libidinal urges. Maybe there is no one factor but a confluence of time, place, personality and David’s skill. I want to find a way to dismiss the film but it insists on making something true that shouldn’t be true.

I found reviews that panned the film as well as one’s that celebrated its genius. The film is hard to evaluate. How can you evaluate an actors’ acting skills while doubting that anyone would act that way?

When the movie was over I found that my response was a desire to share the film with others so we could discuss it. As soon as it was over I was thinking about who to call. Perhaps this desire for input is part of the point. I didn’t feel comfortable with my own judgement. I wanted outside advice.


We humans evolved to live in groups and to hunt in groups like a wolves. We were not strong enough to take down most prey on our own and so we relied on the group. We are tied to each other with deep and primitive bonds. We seek the reassurance and acceptance of the group and the validation of the alpha. The leader of the pack tells us who we are and where we belong. We are vulnerable when it comes to these basic drives. They are what made our survival possible and have been bred into us over generations.

Now when we drive through McDonald’s and eat prey that has been processed in a factory far away, we like to believe we are past all that primitive caveman stuff, but the human brain hasn’t significantly changed for more than 150,000 years.

When you watch Compliance you’ll want to yell at the screen. Maybe you will try philosophizing about cavemen. You won’t like Compliance, but you’ll have to accept it.If you enjoyed this article click here for more

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