The first thing you need to know about Compliance is that its based on a true story. I know, I know. That old chestnut. I get sick of this phrase. Don’t even get me stated on “inspired by true events”. “Precisely which bit of the story is true? What events inspired this?” I cry aloud at the screen. In this case all of it, apparently, and there’s a lot of news coverage to back up the claim.
Synopsis: Sandra, the manager of a fast food restaurant receives a call from a man claiming to be a police officer, saying one of her employees has stolen money from a customer. The caller orders Sandra to detain said employee, 19-year-old Becky, and over the course of several hours, convinces Sandra and others to strip search, humiliate and abuse her. Sounds far-fetched, no? Perhaps that’s because these things really happened – you’d never get away with something like this if it was a work of the imagination!
What can I say? The setting is suitably grim and claustrophobic, the direction manages to avoid feeling exploitative and the performances are strong enough.
The characters involved here are so outrageously, inconceivably, maddeningly, mind-bendingly stupid it was all I could do at times to stop myself screaming and shaking my fists at the screen. And then I remembered those words that film makers love to use… “based on true events”. In the opening credits, Zobel reminds us that this is one such story and goes further by saying “nothing has been exaggerated”.
On one hand is it hard to believe that the branch manager, Sandra, would be taken in so completely by the disembodied voice on the end of her phone. Why, we ask ourselves would you ever believe that a police officer would call your workplace to tell you that your employee is a thief? Why not just come in and question her in person? Why, would he spend hours on the phone when the police station is only half a mile away? Why would a police officer ever ask a member of the public to search a suspect? Why would Sandra go along with it? Why wouldn’t anyone else at the restaurant step in and say “hang on a minute, I’m not sure we should be doing this”? Why wouldn’t the girl refuse to follow these instructions? So many questions!
But on the other hand, it’s actually quite easy to believe that people really are that stupid. Isn’t it? Think of all the stories you hear, even today, about people being scammed into paying hundreds of pounds to claim amazing prizes they’ve won in competitions they never entered, or those who’ve given money to help an exiled Nigerian Prince all for the promises written by a stranger in an unsolicited email.
Add into the equation people’s propensity to obey authority, as per Milgram’s obedience studies of the 1960s, and it really is easy to see how these people could be duped by someone claiming to represent the law. If you’re so inclined, you might also be interested in Zimbardo’s prison study which showed how quickly people will adopt the roles of victim and perpetrator when placed in a scenario where one person is given a role of authority over another.
Final thoughts: if this wasn’t based on a true story it’d be hard to get past the first 15 minutes because it’s so totally unbelievable. Seeing as it is based on a true story, it’s deeply disturbing, excruciatingly cringe-inducing and morbidly fascinating but perhaps most of all, it is incredibly frustrating.
The true story is actually even madder than the film because there were so many hoax calls made to so many venues (around 70 according to news reports, and that doesn’t include any where the victims were too embarrassed to come forward). Google McDonald’s strip search scam if you want to find out more. It really is a true story that is beyond belief.
Running time: 1 hr 30 mins
Directed by: Craig Zobel
Starring: Dreama Walker, Ann Dowd, Pat Healy