there is much to loathe about working at mcdonalds: the infantilizing dress code, the cheap, plastic name-tags that still manage to be impersonal, the sickly smell of grease mingled with disinfectant, the endless horde of customers— all in exchange for a minimum hourly pittance. but surely, the most odious indignity is the dispiriting monotony of repetition. fast food labor is not back-breaking, nor even really demeaning. it is worse; it is insidiously mind-numbing. i escaped after just two weeks and never looked back.
eating at mcdonalds is little different than working there. the dining experience is distilled to a numerical essence of value meals #1, #2, or #3. customers are conditioned to rely on colorful, brightly illuminated overhead menus; teenage employees are expected to demonstrate obedience to shift managers; and managers are instructed to defer to large corporate binders of standard operating procedures.
treating thinking like a preventable nuisance, mcdonalds is a post-industrial marvel of automatons serving automatons serving automatons. but such a well-oiled machine can be susceptible to subversion by a slick operator.
in “compliance”, a stranger from afar calls a small town fast food franchise, impersonates a police officer, and over the course of several hours, through sheer verbal manipulation, successfully orchestrates the false imprisonment, strip search, and sexual assault of a hapless female employee— all at the hands of her manager, co-workers, and a stranger.
it is so bizarre, the story teeters on incredulity. yet the film is based on a string of real life prank phone calls known as the “mcdonald’s strip search prank phone call scam”.
the first act of “compliance” is superb in establishing the drudgery of working fast food. so when eager-to-please and overwhelmed store manager sandra is convincingly informed that haughty cashier becky has stolen money from a customer, it isn’t so far-fetched that sandra detains her in the back-room for questioning.
but by the beginning of the second act when sandra succumbs to the caller’s disembodied voice and becky surrenders to removing her own clothes, an ominous pall of dread and humiliation descends and never lifts. the claustrophobic voyeurism becomes too great for some to bear, and at least a dozen people walked out of the theater prior to the final act.
in their abrupt departure, there is an air of impatience, disgust, defiance, and even a whiff of self-satisfaction for leaving on the moral high ground. but their early exit expresses a fundamental lack of empathy. people stand up and leave because they stop caring what happens to becky and give up any pretense of trying to put themselves in sandra’s shoes to understand her seemingly foolish compliance.
this failure in empathy is ostensibly traceable to a misunderstanding of the film. “compliance” is descriptive in nature. writer/director craig zobel brings to life a visual and psychological narrative of what was previously otherwise just an ephemeral “weird news” story of the day. he paints each character neutrally, and leaves it to the audience to find meaning and render judgment. this normative void is ultimately what leaves some feeling queasy and uncomfortable.
the contentious reactions to “compliance” are reminiscent of neil labute’s “in the company of men”, but the latter seems more susceptible to accusations of mean-spiritedness and misogyny. zobel’s “compliance”, on the other hand, tries earnestly to lead a horse to empathy, but shouldn’t be faulted if many won’t drink because they erroneously confuse it as entertainment.