Compliance: sneering at naive workers exploited by a culture that treats them as robots and brutes

Craig Zobel, “Compliance” (2012)

Based on a series of incidents over a decade from the mid-1990s to 2004, in which a prank caller convinced the staff at various fast-food restaurants in rural areas of the US that he was a police officer and that they had to carry out various demeaning actions on fellow staff, this film demonstrates the extent to which people, especially working-class people without much education, are willing to obey authority and commit the most brutal acts. At the beginning of the film, Sandra (Ann Dowd) is a stressed-out middle-aged manager of a small-town fast-food joint who’s just been harassed by her regional manager for wasting inventory. The busy Friday shift is about to start and already the restaurant is one staff member short. The staff members themselves are a mix of people, young and old, middle class and working class, and Sandra has her hands full ordering them about and attending to the constant demands of customers. The phone rings and Sandra picks it up: the caller (Pat Healy) claims to be police officer Daniels and he is investigating a complaint about one of Sandra’s underlings in the restaurant, an attractive young blonde woman called Becky (Dreama Walker), who is alleged to have stolen a customer’s money. At his order, Sandra drags Becky into a store-room, to be kept under surveillance until the police arrive to make a formal arrest.

What follows is a horrific study in psychological horror as Becky is subjected to a strip search by Sandra and another employee, followed by extreme sexual humiliation and violence. Throughout Becky’s ordeal, Sandra continues to comply with Daniels’ orders even as they become ever more bizarre and perverted. She brings in co-worker Kevin to watch Becky but he quits the room in disgust after being ordered by Daniels to force Becky to undress again. Sandra then calls and brings in her fiancĂ© Van to watch Becky and Daniels orders him to abuse the girl by spanking her.

The film’s story faithfully follows the details of an actual incident that occurred at a McDonald’s franchise in Mount Washington, Kentucky state, right up to the point where the police really do become involved and start tracking down the prank caller and making arrests. The rest of the film then flits through the police investigation and scenes in which Becky considers her legal options and Sandra is interviewed by a journalist about her actions and why she obeyed the prank caller.

While the outward message of the film seems obvious – that people can and do obey authority far too trustingly, even when there are clues that someone claiming to be what he is not, is not at all genuine – the plot itself, by concentrating very closely on the details of the story, fails to make the connection between class and education level on the one hand, and the extent to which people blindly follow authority on the other hand. Sandra and Van are shown to be simple people with limited schooling and equally limited options, and the other people around them are also unsophisticated and no match for the devious middle class prankster preying on them. There is a sub-text suggesting that Sandra is jealous of Becky because she is young and pretty, and that perhaps the prank call gives Sandra an opportunity to subconsciously abuse the girl which might explain why the older woman falls for the scam so readily.

The film does not show the full context in which Sandra, Becky, the rest of the staff and Van feel harassed and compelled to obey the prank caller: the fast-food restaurant staff have an unsympathetic and remote management on their backs, and are driven by work quotas they have to fulfill and a work culture that treats them like robots. In such an environment there is no need to think critically, to exercise one’s imagination, and such attributes would be discouraged anyway. There is no suggestion anywhere in the film that Sandra and her staff have been notified of prank callers in their district by their regional management even when the police discover the person posing as “Daniels” could have been harassing another fast-food establishment prior to the incident in the film.

The film could have been an effective indictment on how working-class and rural people are preyed on and made the butt of cruel pranks by knowing middle-class sociopaths, and an examination of how capitalism exploits people’s loyalty to authority and their willingness to conform and obey orders. Instead it offers a cheap opportunity for audiences to sneer at naive working people exploited by government, corporations and an ideology that regards such workers as expendable work units whose job is to make money and profits. Ultimately as Sandra faces jail time, unemployment and a lonely future, having broken off her engagement to Van, the film can do nothing more than abandon her to her fate.