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Review: Craig Zobel's Movie "Compliance"--Based on a True Story

Updated on October 17, 2012
KeithTax profile image

Keith Schroeder writes The Wealthy Accountant blog with 30 years experience in the tax field. He is the tax adviser of Mr. Money Mustache.

Kentucky McDonald's Sexual Assault Prank Call

Last night I watched the movie Compliance at the UW Union South Marquee in Madison, Wisconsin as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival. The bio on Compliance made it clear the movie was dark, edgy, gritty, disturbing. Prior to the showing, a festival announcer warned us this movie would lead to conflicting attitudes and thoughts about human psychology. The reality of this movie went beyond what words can describe.

This is where I would warn you of a spoiler alert, but that is unnecessary for this film. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind where the story is going. The real story is the unfolding of events based on a true story of a prank phone call to a McDonald’s in Kentucky that ended with the sexual assault and rape of a young woman. Knowing what you are seeing really happened makes Compliance more disturbing than a purely fictional film.

Compliance was the opening film at Sundance earlier this year. According to one of the actors, about 25 people walked out of the film at the premier. At the showing I attended, 15-20 people walked out of 320 in attendance. Compliance is that hard to watch. Halfway through my showing several people started shouting, “Fight back,” at the screen. The emotions this film creates are impossible to contain.

This fictionalized telling of real events starts with the opening of a shift at the Chickwich fast food restaurant. The manager gives the team a pep talk because a surprise visit from a corporate tester is expected.

"Compliance" Trailer

Shortly after the shift begins, a phone call by police to Sandra, the manager, played by Ann Dowd, accuses a nineteen year old girl working the front counter, Becky, played by Dreama Walker, of stealing money from a customer’s purse. The call is really a prank call. Becky is detained in a back office as the fake police officer, Officer Daniels, played by Pat Healy, demands. Sandra is told the police are too busy to get there right away and that she will need to assist him in gathering evidence.

Sandra is first asked to check Becky’s pockets and purse. Officer Daniels talks Sandra into strip searching Becky and then storing Becky’s clothes in Sandra’s car. When Becky is reluctant, Sandra hands Becky the phone. Officer Daniels convinces Becky it is in her best interest to cooperate. If she refuses, she will be arrested when the police do arrive and she will spend a night in jail.

Phone Anxiety

The phone is a powerful tool to manipulate people.
The phone is a powerful tool to manipulate people. | Source

Officer Daniels now asks Sandra to get a male employee, Kevin, played by Phillip Ettinger, to help strip search Becky. Kevin refuses and goes back to work, concerned, but doesn’t call the real police, believing Becky did steal money from a customer. Sandra complains to Officer Daniels she is needed in the restaurant. Officer Daniels says she needs to find someone to watch the Becky, preferably a male. He convinces Sandra to call her fiancé, Harold, played by Stephen Payne, to come to the restaurant and watch Becky. When he arrives, Sandra leaves Harold alone with Becky.

Once alone with Becky, Officer Daniels talks Harold into continuing with a cavity search. When Becky complains he hands her the phone. Officer Daniels threatens Becky again with serious jail time and threatens reporting to the judge she was uncooperative. He then demands Becky allow Harold to spank her and then to reward him with oral sex for following order. Becky then allows Harold to spank her and then performs oral sex on him.

Milgram Experiment

Harold, distraught, leaves the restaurant. The caller tells Sandra she needs another man, Van (played by Bill Camp), a customer, to watch Becky. When Van sees what is happening he refuses and exposes the ruse.

As each new sexual request is made against Becky, the audience cringes in their seats. At the end of the movie it is revealed these prank phone calls happened at 70 fast food restaurants over a short period of time. The caller is found and arrested in the movie and in real life.

What the movie doesn’t say is that the caller was acquitted because they couldn’t prove he made the call. However, the calls stopped after his arrest. Compliance is a fictionalized story extracted from several of the 70 accounts, but most of the movie focuses on the one incident at the McDonald’s in Kentucky. As Pay Healy (Officer Daniels) states to the remaining audience after the movie, the most egregious acts happened to Becky at the McDonald’s. Another point the movie fails to mention is that the prank call/assault went on for 4 ½ hours. This final fact left the audience in stunned silence.

The movie also omits Harold turned himself into police afterwards and served some jail time. Sandra claims she was a victim, too, and sued for damages and won. Becky received a $6 million settlement from the corporation.

Compliance disturbs us so much because we all know deep down inside we can also be manipulated. The Milgram experiment of the early 1960s makes it clear how easy normal people with a solid moral compass can be manipulated into vile acts. In the Milgram experiment, 65% of test subjects administered what they were told could be a lethal shock to a subject. Further studies over the decades have had consistent results.

We squirmed in our seat while watching Compliance because we see a little of ourselves in both victim and perpetrator. The ease at which we can be convinced to commit horrible crimes even when our conscious tells us not to is disturbing. We know we can also become the victim just as easy.

Compliance is a movie worth seeing as long as you know what you are going to see. Leave the kids at home. There is some frontal nudity, but it is not sex for sex’s sake in nature. The sex act is brief and not visible. The emphasis of the movie is on the psychological factors and not the sexual content.

Like most people you will struggle with who to blame. As time goes on you will blame all parties involved. That is the point of the movie, to force you to think about human psychology and how each of us can play each role in Compliance.


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    • KeithTax profile image

      Keith Schroeder 4 years ago from Wisconsin

      This movie is now available via streaming on Netflix.

    • profile image

      Ronnie 4 years ago


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      jj 5 years ago

      there's no doubt some people will blindly follow authority, despite logic and reason. just look at the NRA

    • KeithTax profile image

      Keith Schroeder 5 years ago from Wisconsin

      Compliance is a movie like no other, MsDora. Keep an open mind on human psychology, but be prepared to be shoked.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 5 years ago from The Caribbean

      Thanks for the warning on this movie. The whole thing is unbelievable. Instead of passing judgment at the start though, it is better, I think, to reflect on what I would have done in the various roles. I pray to God that I think straight and act wisely.