By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated January 26, 2012 at 12:00 PM EST

Nerve-wracking, extremely troubling, and teetering on that fine Sundance line between useful provocation and self-satisfied exploitation (yes, I’m talking to you, Catfish), Compliance is the cinematic counterpart to one of those famous psychological studies from the 1960s in which volunteers who thought they were assisting in a scientific experiment in pain tolerance were instructed to increase the intensity of pain they inflicted on fellow humans. But rather than studying those being hurt, the real subject was those who complied with authority to do the hurting. (Yes, I’m talking to you, Nazis.)

Here the coolly noncommittal scientist messing with documentary-style fiction is writer-director Craig Zobel, who was inspired by real accounts of similar events to introduce us to Sandra (Ann Dowd), conscientious middle-aged manager of an Ohio fast-food joint. Sandra is interrupted during a particularly busy shift at the restaurant by a disturbing call from someone who identifies himself as a police officer (Pat Healy, excellently creepy): The cop is following up on an accusation that pretty, blonde Becky (Dreama Walker), a teenaged restaurant worker who’s no favorite of Sandra’s, has lifted money from a customer’s handbag. Asked by the cop to detain Becky while his team sets a wider net, Sandra complies. Asked to search Becky’s own handbag, Sandra complies. Asked to strip search Becky, Sandra…. Let’s just say that the movie pushes further and further into sexual predation and humiliation at the demand of “authority,” and that each of three men who are brought in, one at a time, to “guard” Becky, allegedy on police orders, has a different response to those commands.

Zobel, whose 2007 Sundance film, The Great World of Sound, also explored issues of gullibility and ethics (and also starred Healy), intensifies an already claustrophobic experience—one that makes the viewer complicit as a voyeur of Becky’s degradation—with sound design that might work equally well in a horror movie, and with tight shots of each imperfect participant in this terrible morality tale. Dowd is especially riveting as an average, good, stressed woman who is only trying to do the right thing for her job, for her boss, and for the voice of authority on the other end of the phone, an unknown man in command whom she wants to satisfy.

In the beginning of Compliance, I tried to brush off the whole premise by reasoning, well, duh, a real cop wouldn’t conduct an investigation over the phone. How dumb can a person be, not to know that? But my armor of superiority didn’t protect me for long. Everyone is a little dumb in this world, everyone is a little gullible, everyone wants to be “good.” When is it time to challenge authority? And what would you do in such a circumstance?