In America for a period just over a decade a series of devilish prank calls were made to grocery stores and fast food restaurants where the caller manipulated workers into varying levels of sexual humiliation, under the guise of an authority figure – managers or police usually. The hoax came to an end in 2004 with arguably the most serious of the cases wherein a young female McDonald’s worker was accused of theft, detained in the office, strip searched and eventually sexually assaulted, all entirely by the power of manipulation and the manager complying without question to the requests of the “police man” on the phone. Compliance is based on this situation, and it is a subtle, powerful, beautiful and utterly uncomfortable and compelling film.
The film is smartly made by second time writer/director Craig Zobel, creating a creepy atmosphere in this fast food restaurant with inter cutting macro shots of the food deep frying; of customers calmly eating their food; of people’s eyes and mouth as they try to comprehend what is going on, and the heavy strum of the cello a perfect musical accompaniment to the horror unfolding. Strong performances from everyone involved, in particular Ann Dowd as the ‘helpful’ manager, help the uncomfortable reality of the situation perfectly. Dreama Walker (from TV’s Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23) is effectively subtle as the poor young employee who spends most of the film naked and is humiliated – it can’t have been an easy role to play and the dead look in her eyes she evolves is truly heartbreaking– she has given in and given up, the system has beaten her. The caller’s power at manipulation is a marvel, asking questions basic enough to get real answers out and using flattery and threats in equal measure to use these people for his game.
The film is polarising people, and I think that’s fantastic. People are walking out disgusted they were made to watch such an uncomfortable film, that something so vile has been made and that cinemas would subject people to such filth (I work in a cinema –I have heard all this and more) and, ironically, that the film managed to manipulate these people into watching it and complying with its 96 minutes of screen time, is perfectly delicious. In actuality, the film is pretty tame. It is shot in a beautifully subtle way that what is happening is mostly up to your imagination and that I think is where people’s minds go apeshit. They assume the worst, go for it and are angry about it.
In hindsight I think it is ridiculous and I would never go along with such an idiotic hoax – if someone told me to strip and spread as they search my colon for money I would tell them to fuck right off – but actually, when I was watching the film I can see why these people were doing so and that they were at the hands of a very talented puppeteer and maybe I would have complied, who knows. Some people, however, are actually really mad. I would love to know who they are mad at most: the filmmakers for making the film, the cinema for showing the film, or themselves, for perhaps this film made them realise a part of their human nature that they weren’t aware of, and that terrifies them.
I’ll give the people that worked on this movie credit: they know how to stir controversy. I’d like to see it but at the same time, as much as I appreciate good filmmaking, I just can’t really convince myself to sit down and watch it.
I can see why people are angry about the film. But it’s shooting the messenger, isn’t it? The events portrayed in the film actually happened almost exactly as they are shown. If anything, the film heavily soft-pedaled the severity of the original incident. Closing our eyes to reality and getting mad at those who deliver it to us is not a very constructive response. Yes, the film made some missteps, such as Becky’s last line to the detective: “I just knew it was going to happen.” Ugh! The fatalism trope instead of what she should have said, which is what the original victim actually said when asked a similar question: “I was trained to do what adults tell me to do, so that’s what I did.” If you’re interested in my take on the movie and the real events behind it from a psychological and spiritual perspective, take a look at my rather lengthy post on the subject: