True story. I recently heard a young woman —shaken, on the verge of tears— tell some friends about how her thuggish bar manager accused her and a co-worker of theft the night before. After the place closed, he locked the door and wouldn’t let them leave until one of them confessed. Frustrated when both pleaded their innocence until early in the morning, he fired both of them. “Can he do that?” she asked. No, he can’t. It’s called illegal imprisonment. And he probably broke any number of labor laws as well. The susceptibility of people who don’t know their legal rights, of underpaid workers afraid of losing their job, and our ingrained fear of and deference to authority–this is at the heart of Craig Zobel’s brilliant film “Compliance.” It is easily the most radical American film of the year.
Ostensibly a thriller, the story is very simple. On a busy Friday night at an Ohio fast food restaurant called ChickWich, middle-aged manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) receives a call from a police officer telling her that one of her employees, Becky (Dreama Walker) is suspected of theft. Sandra diligently follows the policeman’s instructions, taking Becky to the back, questioning her, subjecting her to a strip search, even asking her construction worker fiance Van (Bill Camp) to help as she juggles the demands of the front counter and the man on the phone. We know the caller (Pat Healy) is a sadistic prankster, trying to see how far he can push people beyond their ethical boundaries. It’s easy to think we’d catch on quickly if this happened to us, yet this is inspired by a real incident, one of 70 such pranks that happened over a decade. (For a fascinating document of them, see the Wikipedia page on the “strip search prank call scam.”) Continue reading