I’m with Detective Neals. He wonders how it’s possible that more than one group of people could be taken in by such a transparent scheme near the end of Compliance, and I couldn’t agree more.
But there it is on the movie’s poster: “INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS.” According to the Wikipedia entry for “Strip search prank call scam,” over the course of 10 years in 30 U.S. States and 70 incidents, a prank caller called up fast-food restaurants pretending to be a police officer apprehending a female employee for stealing and other assorted crimes. He then proceeded to get the managers to conduct strip searches and force the “suspects” to perform various sexual acts.
There’s great material here for a compelling movie, one that not only recounts these true events, but also draws a parallel between jail and the workplace, how in many ways, bosses function like wardens. There’s also plenty of dramatic potential in the herd mentality, the idea that, out of fear, many people will blindly follow authority, even if their instincts are screaming at them not to, and the idea that flattery can get you everywhere. You can convince someone to do something that is clearly crossing the line by convincing them that they are good Americans performing their civic duty.
Ann Dowd, who plays Sandra, the easily hoodwinked fast-food manager, almost makes me see how someone could be taken in by such a scam. In the opening scenes, she’s presented as a hard worker and a tough, though fair, boss, someone who wants to get the most out of her employees and be liked by them, too. She’s also an insecure romantic who just wants to be loved. The way she reveals that her boyfriend is about to propose to her because he had the talk with her dad, as if she wants to prove that she’s a normal human being with a great life outside of work, is kind of heartbreaking. Dowd is thoroughly deserving of her Oscar buzz.
The motivation of Van, Sandra’s boyfriend, who gets involved and continues to follow the orders of the “police” even after it becomes clear that the entire situation has got to be a scam, is murkier. (Note that Sandra is kept in the dark here — even she, with all her people-pleasing tendencies, would have drawn the line around the naked jumping jacks.) It’s the kind of movie that makes you scream at the characters onscreen while watching through your fingers.
Haven’t any of these people ever seen an episode of Law & Order?! What cop calls you at home or on the job unless you’re being asked to come down to the station? They’re more likely to show up unannounced to conduct their business face-to-face. And when they do, if they’re not in uniform, don’t they usually present a badge as proof of their identity? It’s hard to buy that so many people in so many states would believe that a random caller is a cop just because he says so.
As I watched, I kept thinking about a story I’ve told before, the time in 2001 when I was awakened early one Sunday morning by an NYPD cop who summoned me to the Gramercy Park Precinct on E. 21st Street. He wouldn’t reveal any details about why he needed to speak to me unless it was in person. When I showed up, he told me that a friend of mine had been murdered the Friday night before, and he had some questions for me. Because he’d found my number in my friend’s cell phone, I was a suspect. Had it been Monday morning, I doubt he would have called my office, asked to speak to my boss, and demanded a strip search, just in case I was hiding the murder weapon in my nether regions!
In her defense, Becky (Dont Trust the B—- in Apartment 23‘s Dreama Walker), who plays the 19-year-old employee/victim, is young enough to make you believe she might fall for such a ruse — at her age, I might have, too. The prank caller throws in just enough personal details to scare her and convince her that he’s for real. It’s the same way psychics try to make us think they’re authentic by offering general details that those who are conditioned to want to believe can twist into applying to them. Walker’s confusion and tentative, terrified compliance is a lot more convincing than anything the caller says.
And that’s the prankster’s — and the movie’s — biggest hurdle: convincing us the way he convinces the characters. He, and the movie, would have been more successful if he had conducted his scheme more artfully, coming across more like a true authority figure than some bored creep sitting at home with nothing better to do. I can’t imagine that anyone watching the film won’t realize it’s a scam long before the prank caller’s identity is revealed, further undermining the dramatic heft of what’s happening onscreen. The movie would have been so much more riveting had it gone for a The Crying Game-style secret and twist, allowing the caller to fool us right along with those employees.
By the time Van is spanking Becky as she’s sprawled across his lap, it feels more like a well-acted soft-core porn scenario than anything that could ever actually happen in real life to semi-conscious people with working brains in their head.