On a busy Friday evening in 2004, a man posing as a police officer called a McDonald’s (MCD) in Mount Washington, Ky., and claimed to “have corporate” on the line. Identifying himself over the phone as “Officer Scott,” he told Donna Jean Summers, the assistant manager, that a young cashier was suspected of stealing from a customer. The girl would be spared a night in jail, and it would be simpler for everyone, he said, if the employee was searched on the premises. Summers took 18-year-old Louise Ogborn, who fit the description of the alleged thief, to the back office, and over the next three and a half hours followed the man’s increasingly troubling instructions. “Officer Scott” wasn’t satisfied even after the girl was doing naked jumping jacks.
When Summers said she was needed out front to run the restaurant, the caller instructed her to ask her then-fiancé, Walter Nix Jr., a burly 42-year-old exterminator, to come by and watch over Ogborn. The deception was discovered when Summers called her manager, whom the perpetrator also claimed to have on the line. By that time, the caller had coaxed Nix into sexually assaulting the teenager. Summers got probation, Nix got five years, and the two broke off their engagement. McDonald’s settled with Ogborn for $1.1 million.
More than 70 similar incidents at chain restaurants around the country—though few as egregious—were reported before authorities arrested David Stewart, a 37-year-old married father of five, and charged him with impersonating a police officer and solicitation of sodomy. (McDonald’s had issued a warning about the scam before the call to the Mount Washington branch.) A jury found there was insufficient evidence to convict Stewart.
It’s difficult for an outside observer to understand how, with nothing more than an unwavering tone of authority, a man was able to fool restaurant managers into engaging in such heinous behavior. By fictionalizing the incident in Compliance, writer-director Craig Zobel actually makes it more believable. On one level, the film works as a psychological thriller about a disembodied voice who manipulates people into doing terrible things, like Saw without the torture porn. At the same time, Zobel turns the events into a Kafkaesque parable about the dangers of mindless obedience in the workplace.
The movie—which, set almost entirely in that back office, would make for an even better play—changes the names of the people and the restaurant, and little else. Thanks to security tapes, witness testimony, and TV news reports, there’s a fairly detailed record of what happened in that room. What Zobel adds, in addition to making the perpetrator a telemarketer by day for good measure, is a narrative pace that builds incrementally, just like the caller’s demands. A Stockholm-syndrome complicity with the caller begins to develop for the victims of the hoax as it does for the audience. The film also contributes a crucial backstory: The manager, here called Sandra and played with flinty reserve by Ann Dowd, has just been reprimanded by a regional higher-up, and is especially eager to please her superiors.
The fast-food restaurant is an apt setting for an examination of corporate structures and relationships. Every element in the production line has to run smoothly or things quickly turn into a greasy pileup of back orders and salmonella. The system discourages improvisation. With shots of a chaotic kitchen scrambling to feed a constantly growing line, Zobel makes the best of this context. While the pressures and strict hierarchy of the job don’t excuse the assistant manager’s lack of discernment, they help explain why she was such an easy mark.
Donna Jean Summers’s behavior wasn’t an aberration. In 1963, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment in which 40 subjects were instructed to flip a series of switches they were told would send increasing levels of electric shock to participants in another room. (The switches were props.) All but 14 flipped the final switch, which they were told could be fatal. The study concluded that most people will obey rather than defy an order they’re uncomfortable with as long as it comes from an authority figure, even if it’s just some guy in a lab coat. Or a prank caller who claims to have corporate executives involved.
The scam also supports the findings of the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971, in which subjects were randomly assigned roles as prisoners and guards, and became fully absorbed in them, both sets respectively submitting to and cruelly enforcing an artificial authority.
Zobel’s well aware of these studies and invites audiences to wonder what they would do in Sandra’s shoes, or in the cashier’s, who obeyed her boss’s unorthodox commands (at least at first) out of youthful ignorance but also fear. We’re not entirely certain of the girl’s innocence until we finally cut to the caller making a sandwich in his well-appointed suburban kitchen.
Compliance is a reminder to middle managers—or anyone who is under pressure to carry out orders from “above”—to constantly question the validity and prudence of what they’re being asked to do. Excessive subservience doesn’t simply make one vulnerable to psychotic pranks. It bears at least some of the blame for abuses such as those that took place at Abu Ghraib, in the Penn State locker room, or at the desk of JPMorgan Chase’s (JPM) London Whale, who wrought widespread damage by dutifully pursuing his firm’s exorbitant profit goals. The film’s lessons apply to all hierarchical systems where responsibility can be diluted along the chain of command. It’s enough to make you question your boss’s next order. Or at least make sure it’s really coming from your boss.