I adored my Philosophy classes in college. Adored them.

To sit in a room and ponder the meaning of life, the universe and everything seemed to just work for me. But many of my fellow students weren’t as into it. I should know, I was paid to tutor many of them as a TA throughout my freshman and sophomore years. And because of that weird job experience, I know that many of you just don’t get why people like myself enjoy these sorts of quasi-deranged conversations. It’s OK. But one of the places where this gets truly mind blowing is when Philosophy/Ethics collides with the real world. Sure, Hitler and the gas chambers of World War II. But what about real world experiences that get a little more nebulous and difficult to decipher?

But first – WARNING – the rest of this post is 100% spoiler filled. If you are hoping to watch this movie without having it spoiled – reading further will destroy that hope. I promise. OK? Everyone sufficiently warned? Great.

What if someone contacted you at work and addressed themselves as local police officers, operating a sting operation. Surprise, the customer standing across from you is a suspected sex offender that the police need your help capturing. So, would you please begin disrobing in order to catch them? No? Stupid made up example of mine, I know. Actually not. This literally occurred on 30 November 2000, with a female McDonald’s manager in Leitchfield, Kentucky.

Here’s another crazy made up example that could never happen in the real world. What if you work at an Applebee’s as an assistant manager and your regional manager calls and asks you to detain and strip search one of your waitresses? Of course you don’t comply, because that is insane. Actually, this is a real incident that happened in Salem. And in this incident, the assistant manager complied with the caller, telling the caller all the while what she was doing. Worse, as the manager described each article of clothing as it was removed. And after the waitress was undressed, she was visible to restaurant employees via a nearby window. You literally cannot make this stuff up it’s so insane.

Which brings us to the movie Compliance which tells the story of a perfect storm of Philosophical and Ethical ponderings. Think about it for a second. You are a busy manager at a local fast food joint. A policeman contacts you to let you know that one of your employees has been implicated in a theft of money from a customer’s wallet. The police officer is detained, but would you please detain her until the police are able to get there? Do you comply? Seems farfetched? But so do all of these other horrible examples.

I do love this movie as a philosophical mental exercise. But I’m not going to actually recommend the movie to you. If you’ve read my accounts above, you already know exactly what happens in this movie. The caller accuses a McDonald’s employee of stealing, the manager strip searches her. She then brings in her fiancé to “watch” her while she is busy trying to manage the store. Meanwhile, the manager’s fiancé follows the callers orders and abuses the poor girl. You get it. You don’t need to watch the movie to understand what is happening here. Why avoid the movie? Well, because the movie is sort of a predatory, exploitative exercise as well. I will hand it to Craig Zobel (director of Z for Zachariah), he was pretty determined to not be to overly voyeuristic in the creation of this movie. But at the end of the day, the story is horrifying. And the recreation of the incidents are quasi-horrifying as well. And yet, some have called it a truly unflinching and fantastically strong performance on behalf of Dreama Walker. After all, she had to convince the viewing audience that this character would go along with this terrible ruse. So, it’s up to you, you decide whether you should watch or not.

Real World Compliance Fallout

This particular incident actually happened, almost exactly like it is depicted in the movie, in 2004, in the town of Mount Washington, Kentucky. The 18- year-old employee was strip searched, and humiliated, and ultimately forced to perform oral sex on the manager’s fiancé. The caller was later discovered to be a prison guard in Florida. But he was ultimately acquitted in a trial in 2006. Acquitted after stating he’d never purchased a calling card before, and yet, one was found in his apartment. Oh, and that same calling card was used to call a restaurant the same day that another similar hoax was perpetrated. But it is thought that the jury acquitted mainly because of a lack of direct evidence. (Come on, how does evidence not get anymore direct than that?)

But where does the fault lie? You sit on the jury of this trial, where do you award damages? Or do you award damages at all? Is McDonald’s culpable? The manager? Is she to blame? What about the fiancé? Or the other employees? Is it society at large and the school system? Or is it all just one big horrible misunderstanding?

After years of court cases and findings, McDonald’s was ordered to pay millions of dollars in restitution to the victim. McDonald’s was ordered to pay $400,000 in punitive damages, and $1.1 million in compensatory damages. Worse, the jury decided that the caller was 50% to blame, and McDonald’s was to blame for the other 50%. Later, McDonald’s was ordered to pay an additional $2.4 million in legal fees as well.

The manager, Donna Summers was fired from McDonald’s for violating internal policies prohibiting strip-searches. And also for allowing non-employees to enter the office. And she received one year of probation for the charge of unlawful imprisonment. David Stewart, the fiancé, was charged with a five-year prison sentence for beating the employee, as well as for the sex act. Want to know more? Here is that interview referenced in the movie itself:

The World of Social Engineering

After watching this film, I was 100% on my high horse, despising this person…really really angry about the state of the union of the world today. But then I started thinking. This is literally, social engineering 101. And social engineering is used as a legitimate way to hack someone technologically today. For example, this woman manipulating this phone center support specialist into giving her everything she wanted:

This seems less critical because it isn’t sexual. But once this hacker has her mark’s email address, and control over his phone number, she’ll basically be able to work her way through stealing his entire identity. Take out a loan, you name it. And all because of a well coordinated initial attack, and a weak human in the middle. These sorts of abuses are happening a lot more frequently than you would ever realize.

Compliance Is the World We Live In

The situations that came together to create the events detailed in the movie Compliance are where we are today. The confluence of technology, and societal expectations have made it possible for horrible humans to pick up the phone and ruin another person’s life. It’s truly sad.

Even worse…I literally have no idea how I would rate this movie if forced to give it one. Is it a 5-star movie because of it’s stunning portrayal of a horrific real world tragedy? Or is it a 1 because of its voyeuristic and abusive bent itself? I could say that too about the news organization that played the live video feed on the air as well. Or heck, me! I’m talking about it as well. I just don’t know. Thus my reason for not rating it. But it is a brilliant philosophical and ethical use case for our consideration.

Have you seen this movie? What did you think of it? Who was primarily to blame for what happened? And be careful…if you think someone is 100% to blame, you are probably wrong. Personally, I think 100% of the blame should go to the jury for letting this man on the phone off the hook. This is just unbelievable to me.

Edited by, CY

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11 Responses

  1. Behic

    Ok I know I read this article because I watched this movie already and I wouldnt read it if I didnt but that is just me. I think this article needs a spoiler alert! 🙂
    I watched this movie last year. I will just say that I watch a lot of horror movies, thrillers, slashers, violent and abusive ones yet i remember this one disturbed me much more.
    I dont research my movies before watching, I dont even watch any trailers if it is not showed down my throat. Seeing this movie is based on a true story I thought it is like in some horror movies, just adding dramatic effect. After finishing movie I remember watching these interviews and all (even at a very late hour on a work day). Man this time based on a true story gimmick was unusually on point and was making its job to horrify more.
    What happened to victim here is much more impressive and relatable than any trope in horror cliche innocent victim story because as you said it is real, even literally.
    Yes you kinda spoiled the movie and the story here by letting reader know what happened but going in blind this was a real shocking experience. So i think at least this page deserves a spoiler alert at start as movie does a good rating.

  2. Taylor Holmes

    Hey there Behic,
    Normally I get all wordy with my spoiler warnings – and add lots of “ARE YOU SURE YOU ARE SURE” warnings. But as this is real life, and it had been around for so long I got kinda lax. So yeah, I’ll throw in 12 more spoiler warnings just for good measure.

    But yeah – this is such a shocking story. Such a shocking event. That this could happen is just downright startling. Why would anyone think that this is ok? Because he says he’s with the police? Worse yet, and I should have gotten into this but didn’t… Mr. Fiancé KNEW he was doing a terrible thing to this poor girl. He knew he was almost busted by his to-be wife. And she was willfully blocking it out… ignoring the facts staring her in the face. The two of them both deserved the punishments they received, IMHO.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment Behic.

  3. Hayden Moskowitz

    Hey I’m sorry if I’m missing something huge and also sorry if this is totally unrelated. if I haven’t seen a movie you have written up on I appreciate the trailers u include so this is pertaining to that in this case. anywho did anyone notice something beyond strange during the interviews video. I’m just really dying to get an idea of where this may have come from or what it’s about. RIght after I guess they go to commercial it leaves you at a cliffhanger saying s omethinv like you will never believe who the caller was. The video then goes dark for a second then there is this lady who “sings” verbatim: he’s a jew, she’s a jew, your a jew, and wouldn’t you like to be a jew. But only if Ur jn the bloodline.. I so yeah not sure what that’s all about or how it’s relevant to this movie but I needed to know if anyone was wondering the same thing or better yet actauualy knows.

  4. Taylor Holmes

    Hey there Hayden,
    Yeah – woah. Totally weird. And it also says, at another point, “only if u n da bloodline?” Woah. I would take it down, but I also want to know what that is about, anyone know? Fascinating. No, I’m going to take it down and replace it with the one that I watched start to finish. But I thought the 20 minute version would just have more details, and more of the original interview with Donna, et al.

    Thanks for the tip Hayden. Still, if anyone knows? Love to hear more about what that’s about.

  5. Hayden

    oh my gosh no. first off i just finished the movie so now i can actually read this post!! and geez don’t you dare take those interviews down, especially not because it “seems” that oh my lord…someone has been offended. goodness no, as always your write up was choc full of content including background actual footage. heck, the fact that you did put those videos up greatly added to the experience. i mean the situation as it is on the surface, given just the synopsis, is utterly blood curdling and moving in all the ways a film such as this should be, but what really brought it to life was how accurate the film was including the interview with donna Verbatim!i could go on and id like to but i caught your reply at a funny time and i had to just make one quick thing clear. that thing is just what i was mentioning to begin with. i am a very principled man and i have strong opinions when it comes to the ever so pervasive offended group. the ones who for some reason think they should be the arbiter of what everyone else should or shouldn’t be exposed to based on what they as individuals favor or not.
    funny enough i was trully just curious wether or not perhaps there was something very subtle or even not so subtle that i just =====happen to be missing. or even if someone had some insight into whatQ` just what exactly was being said at all. However believe me, i wont be losing any sleep over it. so yeha if i havent said it enough by this point, let me be clear, i thought that audio section was interesting in that it seemed completely random and lo and behold it seems its much ado about nothing, in addition , the interviews are gold and there’s no request coming from my end to make any changes in that department
    as always, thank you so much for being a central source in the always ongoing search for the next awesome cinematic experience

    • Taylor Holmes

      Thanks for the compliments, and also for the tip to the issue in the video. I replaced it with the exact same footage, but minus those really disturbing text comments riddled throughout. So no, I’m not bending to some sort of pressure or anything. Just found the exact same interview footage minus the weirdness.

      Glad you finally actually watched the movie. And can now, officially read the post! hahaha.

      Looking back at my write up, I sort of realized I’m missing a discussion about the gender inequality here. The gender-power-inequality that is presumed. Like, that some guy, calls and says he’s with the police, and that this woman is a thief. Then he’s able to tell these strangers to do to her what he wants? That just presumes so much. But as it worked, it tells us a lot about what we think, as a society, about women – especially young women – and their place in society. Huh. Well, I found this movie fascinating from a million different angles. Fascinating, and really really troubling.

  6. Robert

    Scary stuff that humanity blindly follows perceived authority. It happened many times in history, one of the worst times was during the Nazi reign. Nowadays we have soldiers and cops who go after innocent people in the same way- commanded by authority to do things that are illegal “because I said so”…. So yeah, even the higher level jobs with education follow wrong instructions, because sadly most people seem to be followers and think in terms of the group over their own inner drive for justice and fairness. Could this be because deep down those people would like that power over others too? That might explain why so many Americans excuse filthy rich upside down economies, because “someday I could be rich like them too”…. I might watch the movie, but I fear it will just make me angry about the current state of society (especially in the USA).

  7. Lisa

    I thought I might have left this on the movie suggestion thing some time ago but now I can’t remember if I actually did. Sometimes it freezes on me and I don’t know if the suggestion actually went through. Anyway….you can’t actually like this movie so I certainly understand saying up front you don’t recommend it. But to watch it and realize it’s based on real events is insane, right? I too did a bunch of reading on the instances that this movie was based off of and I could not believe that people were so easy to accept a random caller as an authority figure. It really says something about society today. And nothing good at that!

  8. Lisa

    Thanks, I honestly could not remember if I did. The performances in the movie were outstanding. I cannot remember feeling as uncomfortable as this ever before just watching a film!

  9. Lisa

    As an aside and sort of related to what you are discussing here about hackers and a weak human target, the scam that is still prevalent around here in NY is the one where they target older people on the phone and call saying it’s their grandchild and they need money wired immediately. A woman in my town actually fell prey to this a few weeks back and lost over 4000 bucks. She went to the bank and wired the money to an account in NJ and the money of course was withdrawn immediately and gone. It was posted in a local community group where warnings have been posted countless times about this scam but she still fell for it.


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