The disturbing prank phone call that inspired Compliance, in which a McDonald’s manager in Kentucky strip-searched an employee at the behest of a caller posing as a police officer, was the last of more than 70 similar real-life incidents that occurred in the U.S. over the course of nearly a decade. Director Craig Zobel doesn’t reveal that, or much of anything beyond the increasingly uncomfortable facts of this single incident, until the film’s closing moments; the majority of Compliance claustrophobically explores the reasoning that allows seemingly average people to engage in unfathomable behavior.
Zobel sets the proceedings in a fictional chain called ChickWich, but anyone who’s ever worked in fast food will instantly recognize the depressing ecosystem that Zobel establishes during the uneventful opening scenes. Middle-aged manager Sandra (the remarkable Ann Dowd) is overwhelmed and insecure, determined both to establish her authority and to fit in with her much younger employees, a typically disrespectful and self-absorbed crew of high schoolers. Zobel slowly, excruciatingly turns the screws as the demands of “Officer Daniels” (Pat Healy, compellingly creepy despite not physically appearing until midway) mount, never providing the slightest justification. The teens, including the victim herself, combine a disdain for authority with a fear and trust of it, implicating the adults around them in their complicity. Dowd plays the manager’s limited intelligence, easily flattered ego and desperate submission to supposed authority so convincingly that the obvious question — how could anyone let things go this far? — is answered effectively, if not reassuringly.