When I saw the trailer for Compliance a couple months ago, I let loose with one of those deliberate groans that insecure pseudo-intellectuals use to let strangers in the vicinity know that one highly refined set of sensibilities is being rubbed the wrong way. "Great," the groan expressed, "another fake-deep painfest hiding behind a ripped-from-the-headlines conceit and feeding cheap thrills to middlebrow crowds who like their junk food gussied up in arthouse attire.” 

Never trust a first impression, especially one triggered by a marketing department. And immediately disregard any huffy noise issuing from a snob's talk hole. Because I was wrong. Compliance is a great and important film. Writer-director Craig Zobel's torture-chamber piece is most definitely a painfest—it is essentially a 90-minute rape sequence—but it smartly skirts titillation to get at unsettling truths about a species robbed, ruled and defeated by discipline and punishment. 

Based on a true story you are probably already familiar with, Compliance transpires over one long and terrible day in the back office of a fast-food restaurant, where manager Sandra (Ann Dowd), instructed by a sadistic caller posing as a police officer, holds one of her employees hostage on trumped-up theft charges and reluctantly plays the phony cop's surrogate interrogator and torturer. 

The cruelty depicted in Compliance doesn't come anywhere near so-called torture porn's visceral shock tactics, but it is, in its way, as unnerving as anything in the contemporary canon of body horror. As Becky (Dreama Walker) submits to her boss's increasingly invasive inspections, and as various bystanders become assistants to the man on the phone, a horrible portrait of just how fucked we all are begins to emerge. 

Although the pleasures of the suspense thriller play some small part in Zobel's film, Compliance is essentially a carefully constructed and keenly observed dissertation on internalized oppression, a study-in-miniature of the way a patriarchal power structure becomes a prison with invisible walls, a place where desires are repressed, wages reduced to a trickle and mutual distrust stoked at every turn until it merely takes a voice on the phone to tip passive fear over into active cruelty. It is a very scary movie because it is all too true. R.

Critic's Grade: A

SEE IT: Compliance opens Friday at Cinema 21.