Hello? Is it me you're strip searching for?
Hello? Is it me you're strip searching for?

“Nobody could be that stupid,” I kept telling myself during Craig Zobel’s indie drama Compliance, despite the fact that it opens with the screaming white-on-black legend BASED ON TRUE EVENTS. As it turns out, plenty of people are that stupid. Between 1992 and 2004, close to 70 incidents transpired across the country in which a prank phone caller persuaded the manager of a small-town grocery store or fast-food restaurant that he was a police officer and ordered him or her to strip-search employees or customers suspected of having committed thefts or other crimes. In workplace after workplace, managers who thought they were cooperating with local law enforcement stripped employees, conducted cavity searches, and even spanked them. The climactic incident, which Zobel dramatizes in his movie, took place in April 2004 at a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Kentucky, and ended in charges of sexual assault.

Zobel changes the names and sets the story at a fictional fast-food joint drolly named ChickWich for the chicken-heartedness of nearly everyone involved (imagine his delight when the Chick-fil-A brouhaha erupted this summer). I guess I wouldn’t mess with McDonald’s either, but judging from an excellent 2005 story by Andrew Wolfson in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Zobel does seem to have re-created the events in Mount Washington pretty closely. As in Kentucky, a young woman employee, Becky (Dreama Walker) is accused of theft, held for hours, strip-searched, and otherwise abused, all on the say-so of a voice on the telephone claiming to be an overworked cop; a master con man, he persuades not only the manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd), but Becky herself that she’s better off cooperating. Like a John Hughes movie hijacked by Roman Polanski, Compliance portrays the American workplace as a laboratory of human submission.

I can understand what drew Zobel to the story. His cunning debut feature, Great World of Sound (2007)—which screened at the Chicago film festival but never opened here for a theatrical run—centered on a pair of southern con men who blow into small towns posing as record industry talent scouts and extract money from local musicians for recording sessions that will never happen. In fact, Zobel actually recruited unsuspecting amateurs for musical auditions and shot the inept performances with hidden cameras, making the movie part of the con as well. In Compliance, he chooses to keep the caller’s identity secret for the first 40 minutes, which is odd when you consider that the hoax is no less than the movie’s entire premise. But knowing it’s all a scam hardly dents the movie’s powers of fascination, because Zobel takes us so far inside the caller’s arsenal of emotional manipulation.

In this case the caller has found the perfect mark. Sandra is an older woman in over her head at work; in one of the earliest scenes, a ChickWich delivery man bawls her out for a botched order, snidely notes her gender, and gloats over her problems (“You’re fucked without bacon, I’ll tell you that”). When “Officer Daniels” gets her on the phone, she’s like putty in his hands: he claims he has her regional manager on the other line, reports that one of his surveillance units witnessed Becky stealing money from a customer, and assures her that he’ll take responsibility for the strip search. He plays on Sandra’s sympathy, telling her that if he has to come to the restaurant Becky will spend days in jail; put on the phone with Becky, he plays on hers too, reminding her that Sandra is just doing her job. (In fact no employer has the authority to conduct a strip search.) He flatters Sandra and thanks her for her civic-mindedness in helping the police. “You’re almost like a real cop,” he tells her at one point.

Notably, Zobel cuts to the caller only when someone in the restaurant dares to question him; Kevin (Philip Ettinger), a coworker of Becky’s, insists she’d never steal, much less deal drugs with her brother as the detective on the phone is charging. On the other side of the line sits a lanky, balding guy (Pat Healy, one of the con men in Great World of Sound) sucking on a soda from ChickWich. He’s clearly an old pro at this, and he knows how to insinuate himself with the people he’s calling, using a scrap of inside information from one person to authenticate himself with another. Besides, questioning authority isn’t exactly a trait prized in employees of fast-food chains. “You and I can sit here and judge these people and say they were blooming idiots,” remarks an FBI agent in the Courier-Journal story. “But they aren’t trained to use common sense. They are trained to say and think, ‘Can I help you?'”

After the Mount Washington incident, a dogged detective finally used the culprit’s store-bought calling card to trace him to Panama City, Florida, where an arrest was made. David R. Stewart, a 38-year-old guard for the private prison company Corrections Corporation of America, would be acquitted in 2006 on charges of impersonating a police officer and soliciting sodomy and sexual abuse. (Zobel necessarily changes the culprit’s occupation, having policemen take Healy into custody at the call center where he hawks Internet security protection.) The victimized cashier and manager in Mount Washington sued McDonald’s for failing to notify them about earlier hoaxes perpetrated on 17 different McDonald’s outlets, which had already resulted in four lawsuits, and were awarded $6.1 million and $1.1 million repectively. You have to wonder whether the real offense isn’t a work culture in which personal rights are beyond the imagination of both workers and their supervisors.