Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Guest Review: Compliance (2012)

A Film Review By Tennessee Jed

Most of us have seen movie posters or trailers touting “based on” or “inspired by” real events. For me, that tends to evoke images of a story so loosely based on facts, any similarity to a real event would be strictly coincidental. Compliance is yet another of the small independent productions to which I have been attracted of late. Directed and written by Craig Zobel, it premiered at the 2012 Sundance Festival. The storyline is generally linked to an actual series of prank phone calls made to fast food restaurants over nearly a decade. This film is based on one particular such incident occurring at a McDonald’s Restaurant in Mt. Washington, Kentucky in 2004.

** spoiler alert **

The title is taken from a term used in experiments by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgrim back in the early 1960‘s analyzing the degree to which subjects were willing to perform acts that differed with their personal code of ethics when ordered to do so by persons in authority. During the premier, several viewers walked out of the following Q&A session feeling the film was demeaning to women. When first viewed, I also felt uncomfortable with the events on screen. Like a gawker at an accident scene, it seemed impossible to not continue watching. At first, the characters and their behavior seem plausible. As the story unfolds, though, I got the distinct feeling the plot was crossing into the realm of fantasy that would turn into some kind of cheap exploitation flick. I was very wrong. These events are all too real, as is the phenomenon being portrayed.
The Events at Chick-wich - Sandra (veteran actress Ann Dowd) is a 50-ish supervisor at the fictional Chick-Wich fast food chain. Becky (Dreama Walker) is a cute 19 year old working the counter. As Sandra prepares for the busiest shift of the week, she takes a call from a person claiming he is Officer Daniels (Pat Healey) from the police and stating he has the regional manager on the other line along with a women alleging an employee stole something from her purse earlier in the day. He claims her story is corroborated by the surveillance unit. He further claims he is involved in searching the suspect’s home, and cannot come to take custody of the suspect for a while. He offers a generic description of a suspect (it could describe half the clerks at most fast food restaurants) but roughly fits Becky. Daniels not so subtly hints that he wants to be able to write favorably in his report of her cooperation, so Sandra agrees to try and help and summons Becky to the office explaining she has been accused of theft.

Becky, of course, denies stealing anything. The caller skillfully switches back and forth between Sandra and Becky to keep them compliant. He convinces both that if Becky doesn’t agree to a strip search, she will likely be arrested, jailed over night, and the incident will be on her official record. She is told to strip naked while Sandra is instructed to carefully examine each article.

Sandra allows her to put on an apron to partially cover herself. To prevent Becky from tampering with possible evidence, Sandra must place the clothing in a bag, and leave it in her unlocked car. She is told to get a male employee to guard Becky, and tells Kevin, a fellow employee, to do so. He is extremely uneasy, and refuses to comply with Daniel’s request to “inspect” her. Daniels is adamant about the need for a cavity search, and convinces Sandra to bring in her fiancee, Van (Bill Camp). When he arrives, Van appears to have been drinking. While Sandra resumes her work duties, Daniels not only convinces Van to conduct the search, but frightens Becky into performing various acts of a humiliating and sexual nature. Feeling guilty, Van leaves, and Daniels tells Sandra she must get yet another male to guard Becky. Becky notices there is monitor in the office covering various surveillance cameras including both the front counter and the office.

The maintenance man, Harold (Kevin Payne) stops by to try the new dessert, and Sandra asks him to come to the office. After listening to Daniels, Harold explodes, and tells Sandra what Daniels ordered him to do. She immediately calls the regional manager who explains he was out sick and never talked with police, confirming to Sandra that she was duped. After three and a half hours, Becky’s ordeal ends, and the real detectives escort her home. In a sort of coda, we learn the man posing as Officer Daniels was apprehended. Sandra has been fired, broken up with Van, and is being sued (along with Chick-Wich Corporate.) The film ends as she is being deposed, and a message stating that over 70 similar incidents have occurred.
How the Real Incident Played Out - After the caller hung up, an employee alertly called *69 before another call came in, and was able to record the number from which the call was placed, a phone card purchased at a Wal-Mart in Florida. In following up with Florida authorities, it was learned similar incidents had been going on for years, although none as long or severe as Mt. Washington. Surveillance cameras at Wal-Mart were able to determine the purchaser of the card used at McDonald’s was an employee of a private security firm named Corrections Corp. of America. Various surveillance stills were used to make a composite, and working with the company’s H.R. department, police identified the suspect as David Stewart, a married father. They also found a card in his home that had been used to call nine restaurants including one on the same day it’s manager was “pranked.” Despite this circumstantial evidence, Stewart was not convicted.

The victim underwent therapy for over three years. She sued McDonalds for $200 million for failure to protect her. The basis was they were aware of the hoax calls and had defended themselves in four other similar lawsuits in different states. The assistant manager, Donna Summers (really!!) was terminated, and her ex-fiancee, Walter Nix sentenced to 5 years for sexual assault. Summers also sued McDonald’s for $50 million. After all the appeals, the victim received just over a million and Summers about $400,000. The incident also formed the basis of a Law & Order S.V.U. episode starring Robin Williams as the caller. I don’t watch that show, but apparently he used the name “Detective Milgram,” a reference to the Yale psychologist. This material on the real incident is taken almost exclusively from a Wikipedia article on the subject, and while I haven’t certified it’s authenticity, it appears amply documented.
Issues and Themes - Without familiarity with the actual incident, It was extremely hard to believe the apparent gullibility and naiveté of Sandra, Becky, or even Van. One initially feels a certain sympathy for those that called the film exploitive. This led me to read more online about the Strip Search Prank Call Scam and the actual Mt. Washington case. It turns out, the events in the film rather closely followed the Kentucky incident. While it easy for viewers to be appalled that Sandra and Becky seem so easily duped, these are most likely unsophisticated people, trusting of apparent authority. The restaurant, in fact used failure to exercise “common sense” as one of the defenses at trial. There has been ample evidence in history of people doing bad things on the orders of their superiors, as well as plenty of legal precedent. Consider war crimes such as the Nazi death camps, or Vietnam atrocities. Van realized what he was doing was wrong, felt remorse afterwards, but still performed unconscionable acts for which he was legally responsible. We don’t know how intoxicated he might have been, but bondage, and humiliation are well known fantasy perversions that may have been somewhat in play for both the caller and fiancee. I’m less certain about Sandra, but many people don’t want to rock the boat. She was harried at the time, and somewhat fearful she would get a bad write-up if she didn’t cooperate.

Conclusions - This film is a bit disturbing, and likely not for everybody. On the surface, it does seem somewhat exploitative. Yet when one considers it is a fairly accurate depiction, it leaves the viewer to ponder some pretty weighty questions. One of the actresses in the production apparently defended the film during the controversy at it’s premiere. The cast is comprised mainly of veteran character actors who do a good job of creating the appropriate atmosphere. The one thing that might not ring true is the young actress Dreama Walker (Gran Torino). She actually does a pretty good job with the Becky character, but is probably a bit too good looking to be truly authentic. In the film’s defense, it does not directly depict any of the sexual acts involved.

35 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Thanks for the review. When I first read the synopsis of this, I thought that it had to be made up, so it was interesting to see that this was based on real events. Kind of spooky if you ask me. But sadly, not unexpected.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - I was amazed that something like this could actually happen. The fact that it did it what really compelled me to review it. It is a disturbing film, but I am glad I saw it, if only because it does force you to think about the notion of the compliance syndrome, and how it works. It is also worthwhile, I think, to ponder the fact that this guy got away with his perversion for nearly ten years before he was finally caught. Even though he was not convicted,I can only hope and believe his life was ruined. All the calls ended after the incident in Kentucky.

As I mention, the lead actress is probably a bit too Hollywood "cute" but she does a very credible job. I am also amazed McDonald's didn't lose even bigger, but as a lawyer yourself, I'm sure you can understand better why it played out as it did.

K said...

The film should be a double billing with "The Milgram Experiment" and shown in high schools, or at least discussed extensively.

It would be interesting to study the uses of the Milgram experiment in politics. Since most psychologists are left leaning I suspect it has already been incorporated into progressive tactics.

E.G. Teachers, policemen and firemen as authority figures, telling you (through their unions) that you need to take more money from other people's pockets in order to preserve order.

Tennessee Jed said...

"K" : agreed, I haven't read his original book, but suspect it might be a bit dry. The point is valid. Even if compliance indicates an innder deep moral conflict, it is out there. Maybe that is why the same people who express outrage at the Brothers in Boston think William Ayers is "cool."

ScottDS said...

I vaguely recall reading about this story... and what makes it so horrifying is that it's so... everyday. This story isn't about employees at some Fortune 500, it's about the gal who lives next door who works at the place you actually eat at now and then.

And why did I think Florida would play a part in the story? That seems to be our thing. :-)

(And this goes without saying but the Milgram experiment is in Ghostbusters - the opening ESP test wasn't intended to test the students; it was to see how far Bill Murray's character would go in giving shocks to other people.)

tryanmax said...

Not to be a total dork, but some of the hottest female coworkers I ever worked with were in fast food.

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - for whatever reason, I don't recall reading about it in the news at the time. And since, I no longer can stand to watch the Dick Wolf L&O shows, I didn't see their "ripped from the headlines" episode, although I can easily imagine Robin Williams making a terrific creepy pevert.

As for Florida, you might say "if I had a creepy pervert, he would be just like this one" or other words to that effect.

Tennessee Jed said...

Tryanmax - baum, there it is! Besides, I have always felt like this site allowed us all to get our inner-dork on. :)

K said...

some of the hottest female coworkers I ever worked with were in fast food.

Sounds like a set up for Playboy's "The Girls of McDonalds".

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, We're all about our inner-dork around here. :)

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, It is amazing that it can happen, but sadly, it's not surprising that it does. A big chunk of the population simple does what they believe the authorities tell them to do. I see it all the time, and they will do any number of nonsensical things just because they were told to do it.

T-Rav said...

This proves that pranksters of this stripe are just terrible people. Anyone familiar with our lawsuit-ridden culture ought to know what's likely to come of such a stunt like this.

ScottDS said...

tryanmax -

On that note, I worked with some of my hottest co-workers when I was at Target!

(And I hooked up with none of 'em, despite some obvious signals... ugh!) :-)

tryanmax said...

Scott, I went on one date with a girl I met at McDonald's, but I broke it off as soon as I found out who she had dated before--a fellow manager who was the textbook definition of "skeezy."

Koshcat said...

This is why when someone either abuses his authority or pretends to be someone in authority, the punishment needs to be very severe. Most people are Omegas (to use a dog breeding term). Perhaps the analogy of sheep works better. Most people are sheep; just get through life and don't make much fuss. Then there are sheepdogs. They inherently want to protect sheep. True alphas become sheepdogs. Then there are wolves who will prey on the sheep. (Bullies or Betas think they are alphas and push the sheep around to show how tough they are; kind of like Obama but I digress) Wolves sometime dress up like sheepdogs to fool the sheep. To help keep the sheep safe, they need to rely and trust the sheepdog; and the sheepdog needs the sheep's trust to be able to protect them.

The fact that the real wolf got away with it is the real crime.

tryanmax said...

Hmm, here's a half-thought: it makes one wonder, if most people are Omegas, and we all pretty much know that at some level, why is it that in instances like the one here, the law comes down on everyone as though they were Alphas or Betas? I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but given human nature, you would think the historical march of jurisprudence would have followed a different path.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, Your analogy is a good one. Unfortunately, as an attorney, I've learned that the sheep stink at telling the difference between sheepdogs and wolves and when everything goes wrong, they tend to blame the sheepdogs they refused to listen to rather than the wolf or themselves.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Two reasons.

First, if you created a separate law for Omegas, then smart Alphas will find ways to escape the law.

Secondly, the Omegas want to believe they are Alphas. So the law is written with the assumption that everyone is an Alpha... otherwise the betas get all whining about being disrespected.

BevfromNYC said...

Okay, TennJ - Great review of a movie that I can never see. It's too embarrassing and scary.

This scenario is similar to spam emails that went around a few years ago where you receive and email from someone you know who is in desperate trouble in a foreign country - they lost their wallet and can't pay their bill at the hotel. PLEASE SEND ME YOUR CREDIT CARD NUMBER SO I CAN PAY MY BILL AND MAKE MY RETURN FLIGHT HOME!! My Dad got one from one of his cousins. Wisely he email his cousin.

But thinking logically. Why wouldn't the hotel allow the person a phone call to get help...

It's the same principle. The police would never put someone in that position. They would have you hold them until they got there, but other than that, it would be compromising evidence.

tryanmax said...

Told you it was a half-thought.

Koshcat said...

Bev, the police would never expect you to "hold" a suspect. That should have been a red flag. Police prefer to do the confronting; they have been trained for it and they feel that they will do a better job. Vast majority of cases they are right. There are also rules to be followed when detaining someone. It is against the law to detain a person against his will without a very good reason.

What makes this even creepier is why have a regular person "detain" them? It wasn't like she was the unabomber and won't have another chance to get her.

BevfromNYC said...

Koshcat - That IS true. The police wouldn't even what you to hold them. They would send OTHER police officers, wouldn't they?

Koshcat said...

The other problem with the whole sheep, sheepdog, wolf analogy is that people may have different roles in different situations. A teacher is a sheepdog to 3rd graders but a sheep in her union or even in her community. Nothing against teachers; not meant to be derogatory in any form.

I think one of the reasons sheep have trouble determining the difference is that the wolves can be pretty good at disguising themselves.

Koshcat said...

Precisely and usually within 30 min.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, Both are good points. Sometimes sheep are given authority, but honestly, they still handle it like sheep. When you meet a sheep who has reached management, that's when you see how badly things can spin out of control.

In terms of the wolves, yes, they are good at hiding themselves as sheepdogs because they study their prey and learn how to work them -- which entails making them think you are a sheepdog.

Unfortunately, however, in my experience, the sheep really are the ones with the bad judgment. For example, one thing I've learned in court is that people always trust the liar and never trust the person telling the truth because the liars tell a better story because they aren't bound by the facts.

Even more disturbing to me though, is how often the sheep are willing to excuse the wolves because it's expected that there will be wolves, and they get upset that they weren't protected by the sheepdog. That one really annoys me and I see it all the time. I think it actually forms the basis of liberalism.

Koshcat said...

This sort of leads me to another pet peeve; eliminating basic civics from school cirriculum. Anyone with even a basic understanding of the system would have never allowed herself to be subjected to this kind of behavior. She should have left or called the police herself the moment anyone touched her without her permission. And then to be guarded and strip searched by a male. Was she mentally retarded? Seriously, McD should have been given a medal for hiring the mentally retarded (sorry, mentally challanged) to work in their resturaunts.

These are the kind of women who get pelvic exams from a male gyn without a chaparone and then wind up pregnent. "I thought his speculum felt a little warm".

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, That could be the fault of there no longer being civics classes, but it sounds just as much to me that it's the fault of her just not being very bright. These are things I couldn't imagine allowing even if I had no idea what the law allowed. But then, I'm also not the type to sit still for things I don't like.

... you'll never take me alive coppers!

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone. I must apologize for not doing a better job of responding, but I have had a lot on my plate with my youngest and his fiancee getting married down here in Tennessee. I finally got a few minutes, but now have to go pick up my son at the airport (he had to work today so he came on a later flight.) Anyway, it is an interesting subject and the filmakers did a really nice job with it. I remember Andrew reviewing a "loop" movie that started as a slasher flick, but provided a whole lot more. This film is kind of like that in a way. I thought it was going to be an exploitation flick with a plot line not too much above a high grade porn film, and it delivered a whole lot more.

Anonymous said...

Dam I remember reading a really long article about this incident and being creeped the hell out about it. And then someone just had to go and make a bloody movie about it, I won't see it as I watch movies to be entertained and not creeped out.

I just do not see how this stuff happens, I understand that people fall for dumb internet scams but I don't fully understand. Greed, stupidity, gullibility? I don't consider myself to be super smart and I can see through this stuff, why cannot everyone else?

I also don't consider myself a rebel or a anarchist by any means but I don't ever seeing myself falling for Compliance. If I think something is wrong I'm not going to do it, even if a cop if right next to me telling me to do it (let alone on a phone and I don't know for sure he is a cop)...

Scott.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Unfortunately, large chunks of the human race will not disobey "authority". To give you an example...

Back in the 1980s, I read about a test they did in Germany where they had two payphones side by side and they hung on a sign on one that said "women only" and one that said "men only." Sure enough, the Germans lined up by gender. And if a line formed behind one, they wouldn't jump lines, even if the other phone was not being used.

Then the researchers sent in assistants to "break the rules" by using the wrong phone. Sure enough, the people in line became angry and harassed these people to try to make them follow the rules.

These people not only did what they were told, they got angry when other didn't just because someone hung a totally nonsensical sign over two payphones. Think about that. They had no idea why the signs were there or who put them there, but they assumed this was something they needed to comply with and they were going to make sure everyone else did too.

That's bizarre to me, yet they did it. And you see this type of behavior all the time.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Enjoy the wedding! :)

Anonymous said...

Andrew,

I understand that people do fall for it and some cultures are more likely to do it, I just don't understand it.

I would have used the free phone no matter what. Actually that reminds me of some fast food restaurant where there were five people lined up in front of one register and the other was free and open. I walked up to it and placed my order and someone told me off for pushing in. And I asked them why the hell they didn't get served were I was and he said the queue was were he was... I told him the queue for that register was there, but there was no queue for this register. He was annoyed but I got my food and left, then someone else came in and got served behind me.

I thought that was very weird.

I won't push into a queue (that is rude), but if there is another smaller queue I'll line up there, that is common sense.

Scott.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Honestly, I don't understand it either, but a great many people are like that. They simply obey what "authority" tells them. And even without a direct command, they will do what they think "authority" wants then to do in that moment, such as things like you say by getting into the same line as everyone else even if there's an empty line right next to them.

I can't understand the impulse, but I see it all the time around me.

Critch said...

In the military (USAF in my case) we were always warned to be careful of "Awe of Rank". That is doing something just because a higher ranking person told you to and sometimes because you thought they told you. You would be surprised at how many times people broke the law, regulations or safety codes because of being told to do something. Even seemingly smart, educated people do this all the time. So now I have a movie to see.

PikeBishop said...

Critch:

You are right. I have seen seemingly smart educated people continue to vote Democrat time and again.

I believe it!

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