As the saying goes, sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. In fact, if I didn’t already know going in that Compliance was a relatively accurate depiction of actual events, I would’ve had a difficult time taking it at face value. The film is based on the extraordinary “strip search prank call” hoax that occurred at a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Kentucky in 2004. Writer-director Craig Zobel, assisted by an outstanding cast, has crafted a must-see movie that will certainly spark debate among viewers.
The fast food restaurant setting will be unnervingly familiar to anyone who has toiled in a minimum wage job. Changing the real-life McDonald’s location to the fictional ChickWich, Zobel has largely succeeded in his goal (as stated in a bonus interview) of making the restaurant a character in its own right. From the constantly engaged fryers, to the bored-as-hell teen employees, to the pissing-and-moaning customers, the whole fast food joint milieu is captured perfectly.
The lowest-level employees in that industry generally have such little interest in their job and such low respect for their superiors that it’s an ideal breeding ground for indifferent automatons. Sometimes mindless rule-following (even if one doesn’t really understand the rules) takes the place of critical thinking as the more ambitious among the drones work their way up in the ranks. That’s what Compliance explores, our capacity as rank-and-file worker bees to literally disconnect our most basic reasoning skills. It’s also about the fear of confronting authority, no matter how dubious that so-called authority figure’s motives are.
Location manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) brags about her pseudo-engagement (she thinks her boyfriend might propose soon) to anyone within earshot, grossing out her charges by oversharing about her sexting habits. She’s a miserable person, but entirely dedicated to getting through a busy Friday night rush. An unidentified employee left a freezer partially open the night before, leaving them short on bacon. It’s going to be a hellish night. Just as things are getting busy, Sandra gets a call from a man who calls himself “Officer Daniels” (Pat Healy). He speaks in a just-the-facts-ma’am approximation of a cop, and he’s certain that 18-year-old Becky (Dreama Walker) has stolen cash from a customer.
From that point on, Daniels—it’s no spoiler revealing he isn’t a real police officer—keeps Sandra on the phone, first instructing her to inspect the supposed suspect’s belongings, then to strip search her. It only gets worse from that point on as Sandra, convinced she’s speaking to a real cop, brings others into the back room where Becky is being guarded. No point in explaining the particulars, suffice it to say that even if you already know the details of the case, seeing them re-enacted will leave you in stunned disbelief. Eventually Sandra calls for backup, bringing in her buzzed boyfriend Van (Bill Camp) to work with the phony officer over the phone. That’s when the bad situation turns into a nightmare.
Even knowing that these events really did happen (and were captured on surveillance cameras), it’s hard to swallow that the pieces fell so perfectly in place for Daniels’ sick scheme to work. In fact, this same scam was attempted at roughly 70 fast food locations around the country but apparently only once did it reach the levels depicted in Compliance. Perhaps the most interesting question is who is really to blame? The easy answer is Daniels, for calling in the first place, but why did anyone take him seriously? Surely Sandra, with her lock-step approach to management, emerges as an ignorant villain in the piece. Van takes full advantage of his fake deputy role. But there’s also the issue of why an 18-year-old innocent would submit herself to such mistreatment when she could’ve just walked out.
Heading up the universally superb cast is Ann Dowd, sensational as the clueless ChickWich manager. Her finely nuanced performance grounds the film in believability. It was a tricky role; too far over the top and no one would believe the entire movie (true story or not). Dowd totally taps into the soul (or perhaps lack thereof) of this woman who just cannot do the right thing. Also remarkable is Dreama Walker (June in Don’t Trust the B—- In Apt 23) as the equally compliant victim Becky. Walker spends the majority of her screen time clad only in an apron (sometimes less), but she utilizes that exposure to enhance Becky’s vulnerability. The smaller supporting roles are all effective as well, including Pat Healy as Daniels and Ashlie Atkinson as the uneasy assistant manager, Marti.
Shot using Arriflex D-21 digital cameras, Compliance has received sterling treatment on Blu-ray. The 1080p transfer, framed at 2.35:1, offers a very sharp image that is absolutely appropriate for a film that emphasizes straightforward, documentary-style realism. Not the most colorful film since it’s almost entirely set in a drab fast food joint, there isn’t much to look at in terms of sets and costumes. The focus is on the cast members’ deeply troubled faces and the transfer allows us to focus on the lined faces, shifting eyes, and overall fidgety behavior.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is relatively simple, but again entirely appropriate for this type of film. The stately, cello-driven score by Heather McIntosh is featured in the rear channels at key moments. Otherwise, the mix is front-heavy, which makes perfect sense for something so dialogue-based. Actually, the sound of the voices varies subtly from character to character. Van’s voice, for instance, carries a touch of enhanced resonance, giving him a fuller, more commanding sound. Officer Daniels is mostly heard over the phone, yet the thin “phone voice” is also just as easy to understand as the unprocessed voices.
Maybe for legal reasons—after all, Compliance is merely based on the real case that resulted in multiple lawsuits—the extra features are a little unrevealing. I would’ve loved an in-depth documentary that elaborated on the real events, but obviously that sort of thing was beyond the scope of this release. There’s no commentary with Zobel, either, which could’ve been potentially fascinating. What is here are two brief behind-the-scenes pieces, basically promotional in nature. Considerably more interesting is a 10-minute interview with director Zobel, who shares some interesting thoughts about adapting the real events for a fictionalized version.
Compliance presents Officer Daniels as the perverse puppet master at the center of what could be viewed as a twisted social psychological experiment. Anyone interested in the peculiarities of human behavior shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to watch this scintillating piece of filmmaking.