In Powerful ‘Compliance,’ Don’t Trust Authority — Or Yourself

After a year of discussion about how to depict heinous acts without endorsing them, I was fascinated to see Compliance, Craig Zobel’s powerful, feminist film about the strip searches and sexual assaults committed by employees at more than 70 restaurants who thought they were helping detain a suspect for a police officer who called them on the phone. Based on a real incident where a disgruntled security guard was caught after pulling the same ugly hoax on the workers at a Mt. Washington, Kentucky McDonalds, Compliance raises urgent questions about gender, class, and most importantly, our desire to not just trust, but to please, the police.

The movie follows the real events of the Mt. Washington case closely. Restaurant manager Sandra (a wonderful Ann Dowd) is already stressed out by a freezer that was left open, spoiling thousands of dollars worth of food, when a man who identifies himself as “Officer Daniels” calls and tells her to detain and search a young employee named Becky (Dreama Walker). As Sandra and Becky begin to comply, the man on the phone escalates, ordering Becky strip-searched, locked naked in an office, and eventually manipulates Sandra’s boyfriend Evan into performing an illegal cavity search on Becky, and telling Becky if she does not perform oral sex on the man, she’ll go to prison. It’s only when a maintenance worker brought in to replace a deeply shaken Evan tells the man on the phone, who has told him that strip-searching Becky again “isn’t your choice,” responds “Like hell it isn’t” and refuses to cooperate that the restaurant’s workers begin to question the source of their orders and come to realize what they’ve done.

Pat Healy, in a sublimely uncomfortable performance as the man on the phone, does an expert job of demonstrating how predators—and bad cops—get people to fall in line. “Mr. Gilmore said I could count on you,” he tells Sandra, desperate to atone for the fridge fiasco, of her regional manager. “Can I count on you to assist the authorities?…Doesn’t it make sense that if she was doing something wrong, she wouldn’t want you to know?” He clouds Sandra’s trust in Becky, and Becky’s trust in herself, with assurances that he has Becky on surveillance, that he has a victim, witnesses, a 90 percent conviction rate. Rather than cackling over his conquests, he feigns sympathy with Becky as he explains why he wants her strip-searched. When Kevin, one of Becky’s friends and coworkers, tells the caller “the procedure is fucked,” the caller tells Sandra he’s unprofessional for objecting. “Don’t give her a choice,” he tells Sandra’s boyfriend Evan, all while preserving the illusion than Evan is deciding for himself to participate. And he relies on Becky’s fear of jail to get her to submit to the terrible—and deeply illegal—things that are being done to her.

Zobel said it was important for him to emphasize, particularly in reference to a questioner who said that the fact that the characters were service workers made it easier for him to distance himself from them, that “I think this stuff happens to people in all classes. I don’t think this is poor people behavior…I don’t think that these people are stupid.” Instead, he suggested, the incidents “made me think about the power we give to people in positions of authority.”

And that’s what happens. Sandra is more than eager to take orders—and receive validation—from someone who she thinks is winning her credit her both within her chain of command in the restaurant and in a society where even the delivery man yells at her. Within the hierarchy of the restaurant, Becky’s coworkers, including shift supervisor Marti, Kevin, and a fellow checkout girl are willing to comfort Becky, to refuse to comply with the voice on the phone, but not to buck Sandra’s willingness to obey, especially not with blame for the fridge fiasco left to be assigned. With the exception of Evan, everyone’s reactions are relatively understandable, even sympathetic, even as they’re a terrifying illustration of our own refusal to defend our civil rights.

The movie also pulls off the extremely difficult feat of keeping Walker naked or close to it and brutalized for much of the film in a way that manages to avoid prurience and keep our focus squarely on her suffering. Zobel told me he had extensive conversations with Walker about what she thought would be comfortable and effective, not just as an actress, but as the kind of woman who would watch the movie as well. That care pays off. Compliance is a powerful call to question authority, and an illustration of what we’re willing to do or let be done to the most vulnerable people in our midst in authority’s name. If Sandra will let Becky be raped, or Evan will rape her simply because of the presence of a voice on a phone, it’s awful to imagine what we’re capable of when the gun and badge are there in person.