A shot of a ruined french fry is pretty much all this movie needs to set its tone. It's not a Good Burger french fry. It's static and silent and has no punchline. Following it is the voice of a meat supplier stating, "You're f*%#ed without bacon," which could be the set up for a Clerks 2-style series of ongoing sex jokes. But it's not. Then come the slights and veiled insults and disgruntled murmurs of employees, a prickly encounter with the boring, uptight, desperate-to-be-liked manager nobody has ever actually liked. Except nobody's laughing. There will not be a Mac and Me-style dance number in the middle of this grim little film.
Instead, writer-director Craig Zobel has taken a shockingly familiar bad-thing-you-shake-your-head-over news story (it's really happened over 70 times in 30 states) and put you inside for the claustrophobic duration. A stranger (Pat Healy) calls a fast food restaurant posing as a police officer, claims that a theft victim has reported an employee (Dreama Walker) stealing money from her purse, then forces the manager (Ann Dowd) and other employees to interrogate, humiliate and eventually sexually assault her. The stranger accomplishes all of this with alpha-level language of control, threats of authoritarian reprisal and a quick answer for every question about the appropriateness of any of it, all without ever showing his face. Shockingly enough, this "prank" has worked over and over again.
I worked at a McDonalds when I was young. And a Baskin-Robbins. And a Great American Cookie. And at several movie theater concession counters. I've been in these trenches. They're staffed with young people with no life experience and, very often, management who've risen up from minimum wage jobs in the same company after proving that they can play by the rules and pretend that the exact corporate policy for dumping frozen chicken nuggets into the fryer is vitally important. Rules are tight and mandatory. Independent thinking isn't encouraged. Ever. You do it because they tell you to do it. You call the assistant manager Mr. Smith even if he's three years younger than you. It's a weird world.
And that's a partial answer to "why," but it's not the whole quarter-pounder. Zobel's take on this series of unfortunate events pushes the tension to a simmering level of dread and disbelief and he effectively delivers unformed, underlying half-reasons for how people come to do horrible things to one another. Naturally, a lot of it involves human nature's essential dumbness and willingness to obey. And there's inevitable frustration as you watch and wonder how hours of torment like this could take place and why nobody has the presence of mind to ask for any proof of identification from the caller. But Zobel's only dramatically documenting here; knowing the tidying-up answers isn't his job or concern. Those reasons are lost anyway, mixed up in the hindsight rationalizations of the gullible participants, their mysteries already being turned into a dissertation by a Ph.D candidate in clinical psychology.
And in the end the moral is: always demand proof of ID, especially when the caller asks you to personally gauge how large your co-worker's nipples are. That's a tip-off right there.