One of the most deeply disturbing movies of recent vintage, Compliance opens with the words "Inspired By True Events," a declaration that should always be taken with a grain - or pound - of salt. Yet my post-viewing exercise consisted of tracking down information on the Internet, and it turns out that every horrifying incident seen in the movie also occurred in real life, the sort of depressing intel that makes one weep for humanity.
Written and directed by Craig Zobel (Great World of Sound), the film is set at the fictional fast food eatery ChickWich (in real life, it was a McDonald's in Kentucky). Sandra (Ann Dowd), the middle-aged manager, receives a phone call from someone identifying himself as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy); he informs her that one of her employees, a pretty teenager named Becky (Dreama Walker, Clint Eastwood's granddaughter in Gran Torino), has been accused of stealing money from a customer and that she must be detained at the restaurant until police can arrive.
Sandra dutifully complies, even as the caller's demands grow ever more outrageous. For starters, Sandra must conduct a strip search of Becky to make sure she isn't hiding the money anywhere on her person. Then she must make sure that Becky remains nude, with only an apron to cover her. Always ready with the right answer, Officer Daniels soon draws other people into the drama - including Sandra's fiancé Van (Bill Camp) - and before the whole sordid drama comes to a close, lewd and even violent acts will have been committed.
More than just a study of this country's oft irrational fear of law enforcement (how many of us slow down when we see a car pulled over by a police officer, as if we expect said lawman to suddenly elect to ignore the pulled driver and chase us Smokey and the Bandit style?), the movie also examines the manner in which even a drop of power turns otherwise reasonable people into monsters. Is Sandra obeying the voice on the line because she believes him to be a real officer or because he flatters her? Is Van following out the voice's orders because he's similarly convinced of the man's authenticity or because when else would a boozy warthog like him get to spank a young blonde's bare bottom?
Compliance is a difficult watch, but it's directed with skill and fronted by strong performances from Dowd and Walker. A coda reveals that 70 such incidents have occurred in over 30 states, but what it does not reveal is that the man behind most of them (including the McDonald's scam), after finally being arrested, was then acquitted.
Compliance screens Sunday, Oct. 7 at 2, 5 and 8 p.m. at Muse Arts Warehouse.