Ann Dowd stars in "Compliance." (Magnolia Pictures )
Ghastly events unfold in the taut and unsettling "Compliance," propelled by a logic so twisted it feels like the premise of a psychological experiment. Wielding only a prepaid phone, an aberrant compulsion and a false identity, a man holds a group of strangers in his sway by remote control, with devastating results.
Writer-director Craig Zobel has shaped his material not as a shocker but as a clear-eyed exploration of some of the darkest, and most garden-variety, mysteries of human behavior. That the thriller is based on real incidents only magnifies its effect.
A quiet churn of calamity takes hold from the get-go. The opening scenes find Sandra (Ann Dowd), a middle-aged manager of an Ohio fast-food restaurant, off-balance as she tries to wrangle her eye-rolling young staff for a busy Friday night.
When a man identifying himself as a cop (Pat Healy) calls to alert her to accusations of theft against one of her employees, Sandra is baffled but steps up to do what she believes is right.
The charges against Becky (Dreama Walker) make no sense, as the teen herself points out with mild exasperation. But as the "investigation" grows more elaborate, absurd and intrusive, Sandra more eagerly aligns herself with authority, and Becky, a girl with a healthy streak of impertinence, is silenced by a numbing fear.
In a riveting performance, Dowd creates a figure as recognizable as her actions are appalling. She deftly reveals not just how flattered Sandra feels to be part of something more urgent than her workaday routine but also how she's able to push aside her discomfort and suspicion in the name of a greater cause.
When, in the episode's most extreme turn, Healy's master manipulator convinces Sandra to enlist the help of her boyfriend (Bill Camp), she cares only that he's a good, cooperative soldier.
To question the ongoing crime-solving-by-proxy — as sandwich maker Kevin (Philip Ettinger) does, with more energy than he puts into his job — is to be labeled useless and "unprofessional."
As a portrait of authoritarian dynamics, "Compliance" reverberates far beyond the confined space of the fictional ChickWich outlet where most of the story takes place. Zobel and cinematographer Adam Stone use those tight quarters, and a keen eye for workplace detail, to squirm-inducing effect.
Penetrating close-ups of the characters — played by a pitch-perfect cast — amplify the seemingly simple question that hangs over the proceedings: Why not say no? The maddening rift between reason and the appearance of righteousness will have some moviegoers ready to leap into the frame.
With its harrowing restraint, "Compliance" is potent filmmaking that's not easily forgotten.
MPAA rating: R for language and sexual content/nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: At the Nuart, West Los Angeles