November 29, 2012 -- This film, based on real criminal cases, is one of the year's most powerful, unsettling dramas. I saw this at home, alone, and I was yelling at the screen. I kept stopping the movie and pacing around the house. It is a squirm-inducing movie that makes you furious, aggravated, sad, uneasy and ashamed to be merely human.
It all starts when the manager of a fast-food restaurant, who is under a great deal of stress, gets a phone call from a police officer named Daniels, (played by Pat Healy of “The Innkeepers”) who tells her that one of her employees, Becky (Dreama Walker of “The Invention of Lying”) has stolen money from a customer at the restaurant. Officer Daniels asks the restaurant manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd of “The Informant!”) to hold Becky at the restaurant until the police arrive.
Sandra is then told to search Becky's purse for the stolen money. Later, Sandra is told to search Becky's clothing for the money, but there she doesn't find any. Officer Daniels demands, all made by phone calls, gradually become more bizarre. He has Sandra strip-search Becky for the money. Daniels praises Sandra for her cooperation, telling her she is doing just fine. He also assures her that she is not responsible for what happens to Becky.
Officer Daniels says he assumes full responsibility for all actions under his direction as the officer in charge. He also asserts his authority by insisting on being called “sir.” At the same time, he threatens Becky over the phone with jail time if she doesn't cooperate with the strip searches and other measures. Hours roll by and the police still don't come.
Eventually, others are drawn into this strange drama. Another employee is recruited to watch Becky, but Kevin (Philip Ettinger), Becky's friend, refuses to do it. Another employee, Marti (Ashlie Atkinson of “Inside Man”), is also recruited, and so is Sandra's boyfriend, Van (Bill Camp of “Public Enemy”). Van, who is a little drunk when he arrives at the restaurant, proves easy to manipulate. Pretty soon Officer Daniels has him spanking and sexually abusing Becky.
It was pretty clear to me early on in the film that Officer Daniels is no police officer. The call is a hoax. The caller wants to see how far he can push the people on the other end of the phone. A telemarketer by trade, he is very good at manipulating Sandra and the others. He has done his research. He knows that Becky's brother has had run-ins with the police. He knows the name of Sandra's supervisor in the company. He always has a ready answer for any questions. Sandra and the others repeatedly question the orders that Officer Daniels gives, but they usually comply anyway.
It is easy to think that I would never be taken in by this manipulative caller, but you never know. This sort of thing has happened scores of times and this film is based on real events. The psychological underpinnings of what goes in in this film are also well-documented by such psychological experiments as the Milgram experiments on obedience to authority figures carried out by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1970s and the more famous Stanford prison study conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971.
These experiments show that ordinary, sane people can be easily influenced to go as far as to apply lethal force to innocent people when acting under the right kind of authority and psychological compliance pressures. More importantly, conformity and obedience to authority are accepted as virtues in a large portion of our society. Indeed, these are the key ingredients for success by military combat units and by certain kinds of sports teams. These exact same pressures can also be used to persuade ordinary people to do the most horrific things imaginable to other people.
Watching these psychological forces at work in ordinary people in this film is as scary and as infuriating as can be. You don't have to carry this stuff a whole lot farther to get to the point where soldiers, just following orders, are marching men, women and children into gas chambers to be murdered. This film rates an A.
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