WHEN A MOVIE is "based on a true story," what typically results is a generously fictionalized account of a salacious news tidbit. Compliance takes a different road: It doesn't speculate about its characters or their motivations, and it doesn't flesh out the facts. It simply recounts the improbable events that occurred in Mount Washington, Kentucky, in 2004, when a prank caller to a McDonald's posed as a police officer and convinced the manager to strip search—and worse—a female employee.
The film opens in a "Chickwich" parking lot, where manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) is signing for a last-minute delivery, rushed in after an employee left a freezer open and spoiled their stock. The delivery driver chews Sandra out for mismanagement of her store, and Sandra takes it, a scene that establishes some of the power dynamics and social hierarchies that'll be explored to such disturbing effect later in the film.
Sandra seems like a nice lady—hard working and by the book, but fair. Which is why it's super weird when, a few minutes into a busy Friday night shift, a man on the telephone identifying himself as a police officer has persuaded Sandra to take an employee in the back room, strip her naked, and keep her there for a horrific few hours. Pretty Becky (Dreama Walker) has been stealing from customers, says the man on the phone, and he'll have some officers on the scene soon. In the meantime? Take off her clothes. Take off her underwear. Take a look inside.
Compliance is careful to avoid sensationalizing its material—though to be fair, the material is pretty sensational on its own. There's a persistent fascination in the way the man on the phone asserts his authority over Sandra and the other employees he talks to—instructing them to call him "sir," alternately threatening and praising them. Compliance is excruciatingly uncomfortable to watch, but it pulls off the complicated trick of making the audience understand how so many people could accept a situation so patently wrong.