For those unfamiliar, Compliance is based on the strip search prank call scam, a series of incidents that occurred in the late nineties and early aughts, in which a man pretending to be a police officer would call fast food restaurants claiming an employee had stolen from a customer and ask that they be detained. From here, he would ask managers to conduct strip searches and, in the instance on which this film is based, go even further.
Though she was unaware at the time, the producers and director of the film were already interested in casting Dowd as the film’s lead before she went in for the audition, having seen her on stage alongside Ethan Hawke in her critically aclaimed performance in Blood from a Stone.
“I got an audition and I read the script and I thought this role is terrific,” Dowd says. “But I thought they’re not giving it to me, they’re not giving me a role of that size. I really worked on that audition and rehearsed and the director loved it, but then, in the end, the dates couldn’t be worked out between the play and the film.”
“Then, I got a call before I went on one night, and I never answer a call before I go on stage, and something told me to pick it up. And they said you just got Compliance.”
Dowd’s two biggest scenes come early in the film, and give us a perfect idea of who this woman is. The first is the opening exchange between her and a supplier, who is berating her for needing more food on short notice. This is clearly a woman who yields to men and authority, believing this to be the right thing to do.
The second scene, and in many ways the most poignant in the film, which is saying a lot given how dark the material gets, is an exchange between her character and a young and nubile employee named Becky, played by Dreama Walker. As Becky jokes with a coworker about her latest male conquest texting her nude pics, the older Sandra attempts to join the conversation and fit in by discussing how she and her fiance “sext.” It is a vulnerable moment for Sandra, and as she walks away from the conversation she quickly hears the young and beautiful Becky, the girl she never was, mocking her.
It is this dichotomy that gives the film so much power. Is Sandra out to get revenge on Becky as she locks the young woman up in a storage room and forces her to strip, at a fake officer’s behest, or does she indeed believe she is doing the right thing? Is Sandra aware of what ultimately transpires between her fiance and Becky, again at the fake officer’s behest, and simply claiming naivete? Is she empowered by her employee’s humiliation?In the end, both Sandra and Becky suffer from the events that take place and at the hand of a man who manages to wreck a lifetime of havoc on the two women’s lives, even though he is thousands of miles away. How they deal with it, however, is a much, much different story, a story we get to see in Sandra’s final scene.
The film closes with Sandra being interviewed about the events, claiming she was simply doing as she was told, and, in the film’s unsettling final moment, bantering with her interviewer as if nothing ever happened.
“I was just trying to tell the story of who this woman is,” explains Dowd. “And you have two options after something horrible like this happens. You can have a complete breakdown and try and start your life over again. You can get help and out of help comes new life.”
“Or that is not an option. You simply do not acknowledge it and move on.”
Compliance opens today in NYC and LA.