‘Compliance’: The Year’s Most Controversial Film

Based on a true story, the provocative indie film Compliance has caused walkouts and post-screening shouting matches. Marlow Stern examines the real-life incidents that inspired the film and speaks with the film’s director and star.

Magnolia Pictures

When the curtains were drawn and the lights went up following the premiere screening of Compliance at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the cramped movie theater—embedded in a library, no less—erupted in chaos.

“Sundance, you can do better!” an irate woman shouted. “This is not the year to make violence against women entertaining.”

Directed by Craig Zobel, the indie film follows a female manager (Ann Dowd) and several other members of a ChickWich fast food restaurant in rural Ohio as a man posing as a police officer phones and instructs the investigation of a teenage female checkout clerk (Dreama Walker), who he’s accusing of theft. After a series of psychological manipulations a la Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, including threatening her with jail time, forcing the detained woman to address him as “sir,” and the occasional friendly rationalization (“Look, I don’t like this as much as you do”), the girl is forced to submit to a strip search and, ultimately, commit a lewd sex act.

“People have these complicated relationships with authority,” Zobel told The Daily Beast. “I don’t think people do it out of malice, but I think people will do things that are even against their own morals if coerced.”

Compliance was shot in 15 days in a fast-food restaurant in New Jersey for under $1 million (Zobel agreed not to disclose the name of the franchise). Thanks to the naturalistic performances and minimalist filmmaking aesthetic, audiences are forced to assume the role of complicit voyeurs—silent witnesses to a depraved series of acts performed on a scared young girl, like those who did nothing while Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in public in 1964. The New York Times called the film “a slow-motion punch to the groin,” while Time went one step further, branding it “Sundance torture porn.”

“Sandra [the movie’s fast-food restaurant manager] worries about losing her job, so that means you fall in line and do what’s expected of you,” Ann Dowd, who plays Sandra in Compliance, told The Daily Beast. “It’s about the pressure to survive.”

“As far as the exploitation of women is concerned, when you’re talking about power and the way that people use authority over others, it’s very hard to have that conversation be nuanced without discussing gender and the way that it’s used,” says Zobel. “I don’t think the film is trying to celebrate that in any way. So when people don’t meet me there on that, it’s a shame. I wasn’t trying to be a misogynist.”

Zobel studied a notorious series of social psychology experiments conducted in the '60s by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram. Milgram devised this study during the 1961 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann to answer whether Eichmann and his Holocaust accomplices had mutual intent, i.e., whether the soldiers following orders were just as morally bankrupt as Eichmann himself. Subjects were assigned the roles of “teacher” and “learner” and placed in separate rooms. All subjects were then instructed to administer an electric shock on the unseen person, and were commanded to amp up the voltage regardless of the consequences. Most subjects applied the maximum 450 volts on their “victims” (no shocks were actually administered). Milgram summarized his findings in a 1974 article titled "The Perils of Obedience."

“Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

Given the current climate, Compliance also preys on audience’s post-9/11 fear and paranoia.

“I remember being in New York City in 2002, and it was pretty common to see police with extreme machine guns in the subway, and that soon became second nature to me,” says Zobel. “And people give up some amount of agency over their bodies on an institutional level every time they go on an airplane with TSA pat-downs.”

Zobel’s film is even more disturbing, however, when you consider that it actually happened.

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On April 9, 2004, a man identifying himself as a policeman named “Officer Scott” phoned a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Ky., and gave a vague description to assistant manager Donna Summers of a young woman with dark hair suspected of theft. The officer said he had received a report from the store’s manager, Lisa Siddons, who he claimed was on the other line. Summers believed that Louise Ogborn, an 18-year-old girl on duty, fit the description, and was ordered by the “cop” to take her to a back room. There, the man over the phone gave Ogborn an ultimatum: submit to a strip search or be arrested and taken to the police station.

Ogborn complied and removed all her clothes, which were then placed in a plastic bag by Summers and taken to her car (at the officer’s behest). Ogborn, meanwhile, was left with a nothing but a dirty apron covering herself. She sobbed.

“I honestly thought he was a police officer and what I was doing was the right thing,” Summers later said, according to ABC News. “I thought I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.”

The store was busy, so when Summers was forced to manage the restaurant, the officer demanded that another employee take her place, and that onus fell on 27-year-old Jason Bradley. Bradley didn’t buy what the “cop” was selling and left the scene in disgust. Summers was then talked into having her fiancé, Walter Nix, come down to the store and guard the accused teen.

Nix then began following the officer’s demands, including having Ogborn drop her apron, perform naked jumping jacks, have her genital area inspected, and spank her for refusing to kiss him and address him as “sir.” The entire incident was captured on surveillance camera, and Ogborn was spanked for 10 straight minutes.

“He told me I was asking too many questions, so he was told to hit me,” Ogborn said, according to ABC News. “I just said, ‘Please don’t do this.’”

After nearly three hours of abuse, Ogborn was forced by the man on the phone to perform oral sex on Nix.

After that, Nix was permitted by the cop to leave and find someone to replace him. That man was Thomas Simms, 58, a maintenance worker at the McDonald’s. Simms immediately suspected something was not right and informed Summers, who then called her manager and realized the whole thing was an awful hoax.

In the aftermath, Summers was fired by McDonald's for violating their corporate policy prohibiting strip searches, while Nix pleaded guilty to sexual assault, receiving a five-year prison sentence. Summers, meanwhile, entered an Alford plea to the misdemeanor charge of unlawful imprisonment, receiving a one-year probation. Ogborn, who suffered crippling PTSD from the incident, sued McDonald's and was awarded $5 million in punitive damages and $1.1 million in compensatory damages. It was later discovered that more than 70 such incidents had occurred across 30 states in which a man called, claiming to be a cop, and forced a fast-food restaurant or grocery-store manager to administer strip searches. No one was ever convicted of the crimes.

At the recent New York City premiere screening of Compliance, one woman loudly screamed “Gimme a break!” midway through the film and stormed out in disgust. Around eight others followed her out the door over the course of the movie.

“The point of the movie is to be open to all interpretations, and the only reading that bumps with me is when certain people say, ‘Why didn’t they just not do it? Why didn’t they get another job?’” says Zobel. “I’ve had jobs like this. Some people have to eat shit for their jobs because they need the money.”