John Waters once said he makes “exploitation films for art houses.” It was a joke but there are filmmakers live out that joke for real. A little-discussed but ongoing part of the arthouse repertoire revolves around films that dress up their desire to push buttons and exploit sensitive subject matter in some sort of phony social commentary or pretension towards artistic daring. Compliance is a recent example of this arthouse programming subset and it’s as annoying and dishonest as such films usually are.

The film takes in place in one day at a fast-food restaurant named Chickwich. Sandra (Ann Dowd) is the overworked manager who tries to effectively control a gaggle of teenage employees while dealing with the usual hassles. That group of employees includes Becky (Dreama Walker), a free-spirited type who puts up with the gig to have an income. Sandra and Becky awkwardly circle each other as they perform their duties, trying to get through another shift in a downmarket job.

Unfortunately for both, the shift gets ugly when Sandra gets a call from a police officer who tells her of a customer complaining that Becky stole some money from her purse. He requests that Sandra take Becky to a back room and assist him in finding the stolen cash. Neither woman knows that the caller (Pat Healy) is actually a sicko who enjoys playing vicious head games via the phone, seeing how far he can push his prey into sadistic, demeaning behavior. In short order, Becky has her clothes confiscated for a strip search – and the night will get much, much worse before the game is played out.

Though an end credits crawl claims that Compliance is based on multiple incidents, the main basis of the film, almost plot point for plot point, is a notorious incident that happened at a Kentucky McDonald’s in 2004. Compliance follows the trajectory of what happened to the victim in that incident, which includes the aforementioned strip search, a prolonged period of nakedness and sexually demeaning acts. Writer/director Craig Zobel handles these events carefully, limiting the onscreen nudity and what the audience sees. These were smart choices because they allow the audience’s imagination to run riot – and this aspect of Compliance helped it become the enfant terrible of its season, infuriating and impressing critics in equal measure.

Unfortunately, Compliance can do nothing else besides generate this sort of knee-jerk shock. The key problem lies in Zobel’s script: even though he carefully follows the sequence of incidents from the Kentucky incident, he pays no attention to the psychology or motivations that drove the real people involved. He invents new characters to drive his flimsy, fictionalized version of the story, portraying them all as either dim or mean-spirited caricatures to move around on the chess board of his story. Zobel treats them all with contempt, particularly the peripheral players (the lone African-American worker is portrayed so broadly it borders on racism).

As a result, it’s hard to relate to or understand the wage-slave grotesques that populate the film – and it’s even harder to feel anything about what happens to them beyond a kind of surface-level shock that ultimately lapses into numbness as the phony police officer piles as many indignities as he can upon the Chickwich employees. Some people defend Compliance with “this really happened” reasoning but that’s simply not true – the events might have happened but the creative liberties the writer/director takes ensures there’s no realism in behavior or characterization to drive those events. Nothing ever feels believable in this movie because Zobel simply didn’t care to do the necessary work to give the audience the emotional and psychological insights into how it really happened.

Thus, all that’s left for the viewer is an experience in button-pushing audience manipulation – and Zobel admittedly does that quite well. He gets mostly solid performances from his cast, with Dowd convincing as an uncertain middle-management type desperate to prove her worth and Walker showing grace in how she deals with a difficult role. Zobel is also clever with style, deftly cutting away from the horrors in the back-room to the mundane realities happening out in the service area. Unfortunately for the audience, cleverness is the only weapon Zobel has in his arsenal – and he’d rather use it to bludgeon his audience instead of helping them understand why such a terrible thing could happen.

If Compliance had tried to make its characters as real as the recreation of the events, it could have been one of the most devastating films ever made. Instead, it is content to sneer at how its characters could be so naive and/or thoughtlessly cruel while nudging the audience with the indie arthouse equivalent of cheap shocks. To make things worse, it’s steeped in a kind of cheap nihilism about human nature that masquerades as some kind of uncompromising “insight into how we really are.” This pretentious misanthropic streak is much more disgusting than any of the film’s shocks.

The results don’t deserve the praise or the outrage they’ve garnered from the mainstream film press – and the film’s intellectual dishonesty, hidden behind its “based on a true story” claims, is truly disrespectful to the real people who actually had to suffer through what Compliance pretends to be about.