And it did. It happened, with varying results and degrees of cruelty and sexual violation, dozens of times. Most notoriously, in 2004 a man masquerading as a police officer telephoned a suburban Louisville McDonald's restaurant and told the manager that one of her employees had stolen money from a customer. The phony cop gave the flustered manager two choices: Take the shift worker down to the station for an arrest and booking, or conduct a strip search.
Zobel doesn't stress these tensions, he merely infers them. The call comes: It's someone identifying himself as a cop, with news that he has solid evidence of Becky having stolen a customer's purse. Sandra never questions the veracity of who's on the line; after all, he knows all the coplike phrases. "I'm going to need you to address me as 'sir' or 'officer,' do you understand?" says the venal deceiver played by Pat Healy.
What happens next involves "special procedures" and punitive spanking and far worse, intended, according to the man on the phone, to locate the allegedly hidden evidence and show the accused perp who's boss. As much as this clammy film is about Becky's gradual descent into a kind of hell, "Compliance" is very crafty in imagining the effects of what happens on those around Becky, the unwitting accomplices to the degradation. Bill Camp plays the manager's boyfriend who gets roped into the interrogation. With remarkable empathy and restraint, he reveals the sadness behind this man's involvement in a young woman's cruel humiliation.
Zobel's previous feature, "Great World of Sound," managed a lighter, more comic take on the art and practice of manipulative weasels. He's improved as a director since that earlier picture; "Compliance" unfolds largely in a storeroom, but its slowly building dread and fluorescent-lit claustrophobia feels eerily alive. It is a small film, slightly padded. The musical score's a tad heavy in its portentous flourishes. One might read an easy cultural critique into Zobel's shots of mindless consumption of fast food going on in front of the register, while in the back room, the equally mindless consumption of one man's elaborate and insidious string of lies continues unabated.
Walkouts have been common ever since "Compliance" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. But it's serious work as well as a nasty bit of goods. It speaks to something in us: the alarming ability to disbelieve and believe simultaneously, and our knowledge that a terrible thing is happening even as we do nothing, or not enough, to derail it.
MPAA rating: R (for language and sexual content/nudity)
Running time: 1:30