Craig Zobel's "Compliance" is closely based on the 2004 case of a McDonald's manager in suburban Kentucky who received a phone call from a man posing as a police officer. Armed with nothing more than an authoritative manner, the caller convinced the manager and several others to corner a young female employee, strip her naked and -- over the course of nearly four hours -- sexually violate and humiliate her.
Zobel's fictionalized version (names and locations have been changed) has stirred some controversy: It was made without input from the real victim, and its Sundance premiere prompted walkouts and accusations of exploitation and misogyny. One viewer reportedly yelled, "Rape is not entertainment."
But "Compliance," which begins on a mundane afternoon at an Ohio "Chick-Wich" and descends into a hellish night, isn't interested in titillation. It's true that writer-director Zobel has chosen a well-proportioned blond, Dreama Walker (The CW's "Gossip Girl"), to play the ambushed employee, Becky, and her character is tainted by hints of promiscuity. But these factors subtly play into why and how things devolve so rapidly, and Zobel's camera always suggests more than it shows.
Zobel, a second-time feature filmmaker, has put together a skillful, sympathetic but unsparing re-enactment of a small-scale atrocity, and his cast plays it out with natural, understated performances. Walker, as a naive girl resigned to her fate, shuts down before our eyes; Ann Dowd is pitch-perfect as Sandra, a low-level manager whose minor insecurities become major failings; and Bill Camp ("Lawless") is quietly convincing as Sandra's taciturn fiancee, Van, possibly the movie's most complicated figure.
Even a too-neat ending and a bit of finger-wagging do little to diminish the movie's impact. One reason "Compliance" is so powerful is that you can empathize with every character -- a feeling that may trouble you long after it's over.
PLOT A prank call to a gullible fast-food supervisor triggers a series of ghastly sexual violations. RATING R (disturbing sexuality, language, adult themes)
CAST Dreama Walker, Ann Dowd, Bill Camp
PLAYING AT Sag Harbor Cinema
BOTTOM LINE Already controversial for fictionalizing a real-life case, but this gut-wrenching re-enactment is skillfully and sensitively done.