The prank calls to fast food restaurants began in 1992. The callers would claim to be cops, or regional managers, and order the manager on duty to strip-search an employee. The fad picked up steam in the new millennium until an incident in 2004 in Mount Washington, KY. That real-life incident is the basis for the new film Compliance, and while the fast food franchise and the names have been changed, elements of what happen in the film are taken from the real life incident.
“Sandra” (Ann Dowd) is the manager of the Chick-Wich restaurant in an unnamed city. There is snow on the ground as she readys her store for a busy Friday. A supply truck sits outside because someone left the freezer door ajar the night before, allowing almost $1,500 worth of supplies to spoil. As a result, they will have limited amounts of bacon and no pickles for that day’s food service. After taking some verbal abuse from the driver of the supply truck, Sandra goes into the store to get her day started by holding a meeting with the employees working that day.
“Marti” (Ashlie Atkinson), the supervisor right below Sandra in the chain of command is there, as is “Becky” (Dreama Walker) a cute 18 year old blonde, “Kevin” (Phillip Ettinger), a good friend of Becky’s and prime suspect in the case of the freezer door being left open, among others. Sandra tries to motivate them to work hard, do well, and includes a variation of that old fast food cliché: “If there’s time to lean, then there is time to clean.”
The day is going just fine until the phone rings and Sandra finds herself talking to “Officer Daniels” (Pat Healy). He informs Sandra that he’s got a woman there who claims she was the victim of a robbery by Becky, who reached into her purse while she was at Becky’s counter station and that Becky must be in possession of a wad of money she took from the purse. Officer Daniels tells her to bring Becky into the office. And she does so, starting a chain of events that will ultimately spiral out of control.
First Sandra, on direction from Officer Daniels, has Becky strip off her clothes down to her underwear. Then he has her remove that as well, and orders Sandra to have Becky bend over to see if she may have “hidden” the money. Becky, Sandra and Marti – brought in to observe this process under the belief that “corporate” wants two supervisors present when employees are strip-searched – are both uncomfortable with what’s going on. Daniels, however, manages to keep Sandra convinced she’s doing the right thing and is doing a good job.
But Marti has to leave to keep the store running and eventually so does Sandra. At first she has Phillip watch Becky, as they wait for police to arrive. But eventually Phillip refuses to comply with the requests of Officer Daniels to perform further examinations of Becky. This results in Sandra making a call to her boyfriend “Van” (Bill Camp) who was out drinking with his friends. When Van comes in to keep an eye on Becky, things seem to return to normal. But what happens next is something no one anticipated.
There are limits being pushed here. People weren’t fully aware of these hoaxes everywhere, prior to the incident in Mt. Washington, but after what happened there, they were. Writer/director Craig Zobel pushes the very tiniest edge of the envelope with Compliance, and does so by hiding behind the fact that what we’re seeing is based on real events. That makes it no less intense, or easier to watch. There are moments the audience seems to want to collectively yell, “hey, check this guy out, this can’t be real.”
And that’s true. Anyone who paid any attention at all during their high school civics courses, or ever watched a few episodes of any police procedural drama on television, would know that a cop can’t order someone to perform a strip-search on their behalf over the phone. But Sandra apparently doesn’t grasp this reality, and neither did the real life manager.
Ann Dowd gives a strong performance as the woman who wants nothing more than to do the right thing, and who was more worried about explaining the lost inventory to her regional manager than dealing with the drama she was handed by a phone call. She felt she was doing the right thing, even in the aftermath when she’s doing an interview about it. Dreama Walker is perfectly cast and delivers as the young woman who is violated by every facet of this process and somehow manages to hang on and survive. Zobel’s direction and writing may make viewers cringe, but they’ll also sit up and take notice of this intense film.
FYI, the real life victim sued McDonald’s, the actual fast food chain involved in the Mt. Washington incident for $200 million. She was awarded $6.1 million in damages. $1.1 million in actual damages and $5 million in punitive damages. You can bet McDonald’s made sure every one of its locations knows not to let this happen again.