Originally premiering on January 21, 2012 at the Sundance Film Festival, “Compliance” is an unsettling and thought provoking film that, regrettably, is based almost entirely on actual events. The well acted and excellently paced movie, in this blogger’s opinion, will hold a viewer’s attention from the first frame to the conclusion of its 90 minute runtime. Written and directed by Craig Zobel, (Great World of Sound) the film is based on an event that transpired in 2004 at a McDonald’s restaurant in Mount Washington, Kentucky, however, that particular incident was not an isolated one; seventy such separate similar incidents occurred over a decade of time from 1994 through 2004.
The plot is not a complex one, but perhaps that is what enabled the real life individual who actually perpetrated the crimes to get away with his detrimental behavior for such a long period of time. Each incident, including the one depicted in the film, followed a pattern. A man pretending to be a member of law enforcement would place a phone call to a fast food restaurant. In each instance, he would ask to speak to the manager or a person of authority. His reason for interrupting the normal course of business was that he needed assistance in helping to solve a crime. But that was just step one in his macabre game. The victim was always a female employee, who the person on the other end of the phone line would ask to be removed from her work duties and brought to a secure location.
Once brought to a manager’s office or back room that was not frequented by the regular employees, the female ‘under suspicion’ was told that the police were on the phone. The innocent victim of the cruel scenario being depicted in Zobel’s film is Becky, a teenage girl working at the fictional ‘Chickwich’ fast food restaurant in Ohio, who is acted, in a compelling performance, by Dreama Walker (Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23). While working at the register, she is asked to accompany her store manager, the already harried, Sandra, portrayed by Ann Dowd (Side Effects) in a fantastically nuanced performance, whose thoughts are consumed by a shortage of bacon and pickle inventory, and a potential visit from a secret shopper, who is really a franchise quality control person. When Becky asks what is going on, she is informed by Sandra that a customer has complained to the police that she stole their money; something which Becky wholeheartedly denies.
Officer Daniels, as the man refers to himself, in a role embodied by actor Pat Healy, (The Innkeepers) is a man who rarely raises his voice, other than to remind someone that he should be addressed as officer or sir. He asks Sandra to go ahead and have Becky empty her pockets and also to search her purse, but that is just the beginning. Once the money is nowhere to be found, Officer Daniels instructs Sandra to have Becky remove her clothes to see if she has hidden the money elsewhere. At first Sandra is hesitant. Officer Daniels, however, is able to persuade Sandra to agree to carry out the mortifying act against Becky. When he informs her that if Becky cooperates, it will not only keep her out of jail, but Sandra will earn the adulation of her regional supervisor, Robert Gilmour, who Daniels says is on the other line being constantly updated as to the status of what is taking place. Sandra abandons rational thought and invites a fellow female employee in to witness the event. Little does Sandra know that she too is being victimized by Healy’s character. After removing Becky’s clothes, including having her take off her bra and underwear, still no money has been found. Is that the end of Becky’s ordeal? Not even close.
Even though the film was based on a true story, I applaud Zobel for not revealing too early to the viewer, that the man on the other end of the phone was not a police officer. I think it made for more of a cinematic jolt to the viewer’s psyche that the reveal came after the strip search had been conducted. I had heard about the real life incident a while back while listening to the radio, but what if I hadn’t? I think that, in a way, a premature reveal would have lessened the impact for the viewer who went to the film with no prior knowledge of the real life event. I also credit Zobel with the manner in which he handled the strip search. While there was brief nudity, it was not full frontal; nor was Becky’s character subjected to situations that did not occur in real life. When compared to the actual security camera footage that the film took its story from, Zobel refrained from embellishing the actual incidents that transpired when the film is viewed as a whole. He had no reason to, considering the very disturbing situations that occur as the film progresses.
At its heart “Compliance,” asks the following question: How far would you go if you were in a similar situation? If you were Sandra, would you merely start complying with the requests of someone on a telephone line who informed you they were with the police? Would you ask for the officer’s badge number or for the name of the station they work out of? Would you have enough common sense to realize that police officers don’t ask civilians to conduct strip searches? If you were Becky, how far would you allow acts of humiliation to be performed against you before you said enough is enough? Would you have agreed to be strip searched, or would you have just left the restaurant to go home, with the mind-set that if the police wanted you they could find you at home? For me to pose additional questions at this time might ruin the film watching experience for those of you who have not already seen it and are interested in doing so. If you’ve seen the movie, let me know your thoughts and what you think you might have done in a similar situation.