Some movies are labeled “inspired by a true story” to avoid lawsuits and distance the film from the real life inspiration. Others are labeled that way because, if they didn’t, you’d think “there’s no way this kind of shit could really happen.” (Still others do it just to fake you out).
Compliance needs the label because what happens on screen shouldn’t ever happen in real life, but it did.
Between the mid 1990s and mid 2000s there were a string of incidents – more than 70 in all – in which a man would call some retail establishment, claim to be a cop, and convince a manager to “investigate” an underling for some alleged offense. The orders included a strip search, confinement while waiting for the “police” to arrive, and a constant search for purloined funds (for a lengthy article about the scam see here).
Compliance dramatizes the basic outline of one of most heinous incidents – one that progressed so far that it included forced oral sex and cavity searches. Along the way, it asks an awful lot of questions about why people do things others tell them, based on nothing more than what the courts call, in another context, “apparent authority.”
Compliance tells the story of Becky, a 19-year old front-counter employee at a nondescript chicken-based fast food joint. Her manager, Sandra, has lots of things on her mind - $1500 in spoiled food, a “fiancé” who won’t pop the question, and a parcel full of unenthused teens for a workforce – when a man calling himself “Officer Daniels” calls. He accuses Becky of stealing from a customer within the last hour. He also claims that he has the customer with him, that there’s video surveillance of the whole thing, and he’s got Sandra’s boss on the other line. Won’t she help him with this investigation?
Of course she says yes, even though she’s seen nothing to suggest Becky is a thief. The caller uses that initial agreement to drive Sandra (and, eventually, her would-be fiancé) into being his agent on the scene, doing all sorts of degrading things to Becky in the name of “clearing things up” and keeping Becky from being taken to jail.
One of the interesting dynamics in the film is how there are multiple levels of “compliance” happening. First, and most obviously, there’s Sandra who acquiesces to the authority of an alleged cop and, to a lesser extent, her boss. Second, there’s the dynamic between Sandra who has to both bring some of her employees into the action or, at the very least, fend off their questions about what’s going on. In the end, they defer to their boss. Finally, and more esoterically, there’s the entire idea that regular ideas about how the world works should come to a grinding halt in order to secure evidence of criminal wrongdoing. It hangs over the people involved here just as much as it did to folks in Boston when parts of the city were locked down following the Boston Marathon bombing.
Particularly fascinating to my defense lawyer brain was how Sandra used the certainty of Becky’s guilt to keep her own underlings in line. The incident as described by the “cop” doesn’t really make any sense – as several other employees point out. It would have caused a huge scene and the allegedly wronged party would’ve sought out Sandra to complain (indeed, we see another customer complain about a poorly made sandwich – it’s a tough crowd!). Nevertheless, whatever doubt Sandra has about Becky’s guilt is suppressed on behalf of a clear narrative – there’s been a crime, I’m in charge, don’t fuck with me.
In the end, a little bit of skepticism on Sandra’s part would have gone a long way toward averting the whole situation. A simple call to her superior or to the police to confirm the investigation (we learn in a postscript that the police station is only a few blocks away) would have put an end to the farce from the beginning. But that requires the ability to disbelieve, which is hard for some people to do, particularly when it comes to people presented as authority figures. Compliance shows how far some people will go without pushing back against that kind of authority.
Directed & written by Craig Zobel
Starring Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, et. al.