The Killing Room
(2010, Written by Gus Krieger and Ann Peacock, Directed by Jonathan Liebesman)
There may some debate about whether or not The Killing Room is applicable for inclusion on a "Best Of..." list with the word "horror" in it's title (and it won't be the last time, as far as this site is concerned). So lets just get this misconception out of the way at the start. It is. So lets move on shall we?
In the wake of 9/11 we have seen quite a change in our pop culture landscape. Specifically, in our cinema. While films that have dealt with the current conflict abroad in more serious, straightforward terms have gone largely ignored by the mainstream public. One genre that has had a fairly successful go at tackling this new world order, has been none other than our beloved horror movie. Since 9/11 horror films in particular have mutated into a much more vicious, snarling beast. While they have never been "polite" cinema, the manner in which they go about achieving their chills have altogether altered. In so much that largely gone are the days of reanimated stalkers pursuing bubble headed co-eds through the forest with a machete, or ghosts whispering softly from the darkness of some creaking, haunted abode. If anything summarizes what has made horror films tick since that fateful day in September, it would be this, "blood-lust". Not your typical blood-lust in the manner in which we've grown accustomed to since the late 70's. Say, "machete enters victims chest briefly before the MPAA enforced cuts render said victim dead and limp 2 seconds later." Not that type of blood-lust. Not the blood-lust of the body count / slasher film of the 80's and late 90's. This blood-lust pours out slowly from it's ravaged, dark heart.. The victim's suffering is captured lovingly in every prolonged detail. The screams exquisite, the terror complete, their physical and mental anguish knows no bounds. As their blood runs from their broken and battered bodies in film after film, the American moviegoer has sat rapt in darkened theaters across the country for the better part of a decade now, gleefully salivating at the heightened and cruel carnage on screen. To say that the very public specter of human rights violations, Guantanamo Bay and torture has cast a long, dark shadow over the genre over these past 10 years would be an understatement of the highest order. Not since the fears of radiation and nuclear fallout of the 1950's produced in our collective imagination images of behemoth monsters, animal and human alike (Them!, Godzilla, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) has the subtext in horror been so frighteningly precise, so obviously on the nose. As the raw meat hits the floor from bound and flailing bodies (Captivity, the whole of the Saw franchise), as images of military occupation begin to dominate otherwise tranquil vistas (28 Weeks Later, The Crazies) and the xenophobia takes effect to the point of rendering every wrinkled, dirty foreign face sinister and devoid of humanity (Hostel, Turistas) and even our homes and privacy are lain waste to as waves of anonymous invaders attempt to gain entry and tear our lives and bodies asunder (The Strangers, Ills), one simple truth cannot be ignored, the horror of the past decade has been the horror of war.
Into this new cinema comes Johnathan Liebesman's The Killing Room, and asks 'do the ends justify the means'? Or more to the point, is the small loss of American casualties on our soil, at the hands of our government, exceptable when it hypothetically aids in waging our side of a war more efficiently? The relevance to our military is nil as the facilitators of this methodology (as depicted in the movie) don't exist on any legitimate, accountable US intelligence playing field.
The film opens with an explanation of the allegedly defunct MK-ULTRA program that was a code name for an illegal, covert, CIA human research program that was ran by the Office of Scientific Intelligence. Using American and Canadian citizens as it's unaware test subjects, the program ran from the early 1950s well into the late 60's. The goal of the program was to study potential means of achieving mind control and developing ways in which to enact more effective forms of torture and interrogation in the hopes of giving us an advantage in combating enemies of the state due to escalated fears during the Cold War. Given it's nature, the program was ordered to disband by the Rockefeller Commission, but by then most records detailing it's actions had been destroyed. Conspiracy theorists have speculated on the the details of this program for decades. It's a sound preoccupation of theirs that is made all the more admissible given the program's sheer plausibility.Now in light of September 11th, the new millenium has given rise to many a refreshed ruminations over what the MK project would resemble in this new age of American "patriotism". Thus adding to our list of new, beefed up cultural boogymen, the American Governement 2.0., and it is here where our story begins.
Four individuals, Crawford (Timothy Hutton), Tony (Shea Whigham), Kerry (Clea Duvall) & Paul (Nick Cannon) sign up for a psychological research study to earn $250 for eight hours of filling out questionnaires. After being shuttled to the location in secret they arrive one by one, in a stark white room overlooked by a sizable two-way mirror. The room contains only a long rectangular table and metal chairs, both items of furniture bolted to the floor. They are presented small piles of test pamphlets full of hundreds of questions to be answered.. Before long, the strangers are making short order of their task and their awkwardness dissipates as their chemistry begins to coalesce. It is shortly revealed that the activities of the four test subjects are prerecorded events being overseen by Dr. Emily Reilly (Chloë Sevigny) whom herself is being studied as closely as they are by Dr, Phillips (a quietly menacing Peter Stormare). When the small group completes their questionnaires, Dr. Phillips enters the room and rather jovially introduces himself and the program. Stationed on the opposite side of the two-way mirror, Emily observes as soon after, the four stranger's real indoctrination, (that they are unwittingly participants in the resurrected MK-ULTRA program)is brought horrifyingly and tragically to light.
There is no end of praise that I could heap upon The Killing Room and all that it achieves within it meager scope. Though it's not the only film taking place in a singular location that wound up on this year's "Best Of..." list (Buried, Devil, and to lesser degrees Frozen and Altitude among the distinguished) The Killing Room forges its own path in that it is almost deceptively unassuming in it's presentation. Stripped away of all other flashy bells and whistles (locations, overwrought action set pieces) and left with not much else to train our eye on but the characters, the story is allowed to be told on the strengths of it's screenplay and actors' performances alone, and boy do they deliver. This is without a doubt one of the most impressive ensembles of the year (certainly thee strongest in any genre offering). Every last one of them brings their A game and contributes immensely to the proceedings. The interaction between doctors Reilly (Sevigny) and Phillips (Stormare), though reserved and respectful (as is appropriate between a student and their superior) and consisting mostly of philosophical back and forth about the study being reviewed, absolutely crackles with tension. It is made all the more taut when Emily realizes that she too is part of the test, her fate hanging on the keen observations she has been expected to provide regarding the four subjects in the white room. Timothy Hutton makes a nice turn as the film's most capable of the bunch. Clea Duvall (one of this decades great unsung Scream Queens) projects the adequate amount of both vulnerability and curiosity. Nick Cannon surprisingly delivers as the group's fragilest member while Shea Whigham (who impressed greatly in The October Country's 2008 fave Splinter) nearly steals the show out from underneath his co-stars as the fiery, ready to fight back everyman.
Amidst all this assured simplicity, further praise should be singled out for Laine Abramson's set design. Though initially one might think that the film's entire budget went into the casting of it's stars to the sacrifice of a "memorable" setting (even as said set design showcases it's actors brilliantly), that notion would be as deceiving as much else of the film is. The severe, sterile white walls that we are trapped within for 93 minutes begin to choke away all hope of survival, smothering us with their oppressive claustrophobia. Ultimately, it was a masterstroke that the production underplayed this aspect of the film, because as it turns out, you won't soon be forgetting that dreadful, terrifying room.
Additionally, an appreciative nod to Brian Tyler is in order. Tyler, who up to this point had yet to really grab me with any of his previous compositions, turns in a score that has emerged as one of the most moving, beautiful scores I've heard in a genre film in sometime. It dips and sweeps the viewer through the full range of emotions leaping off the screen. Dread, hope, loss, sacrifice and terror are all truly felt and realized through his stunning, understated music.
Another name that pleasantly surprised me was the director himself, Jonathan Liebesman. If I had been aware of his hand steering this ship before the credits rolled, I might have been slightly apprehensive in turning over my time to this venture, but thankfully, I was ignorant of this information. Liebesman as you might well remember, (or not) directed 2003's dreadfully awful Darkness Falls (though to his credit, it was a victim of much studio tampering) and helmed the lukewarm, misguided Leatherface prequel The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. Who knew the man had it in him? Perhaps all he needed was an well written script in addition to the creative freedom provided to a production that is this low key and under the radar. Perhaps, The Killing Room was his consolation for being saddled with such woeful, previous directing duties. Whatever the case may be, Liebesman has finally turned in something that truly shines. Up next from him is 2011's Battle: Los Angeles. Time will tell if he can capture lightning in a bottle twice.
Thought provoking, relevant, suspenseful, adult and effectively capable of leaving it's viewer with a mean case of paranoia, The Killing Room is a surprising success that hits you from out of nowhere (and literally came from out of nowhere for this viewer). When the film ended, I had to ask myself, as a human being, what am I capable of doing to others in the name of survival? How susceptible am I to conditioning to act against my own nature, all but giving up that survival instinct for the "greater good" of my country? Honestly, they are truly unsettling questions that I hope that I never have to answer, but The Killing Room will have you pondering nonetheless.
The Killing Room stars Chloë Sevigny (All Flowers In Time, My Son My Son What Have Ye Done?, American Psycho), Peter Stormare (The Divide, Horsemen, Bruiser), Timothy Hutton (The Alphabet Killer, Secret Window, The Dark Half), Clea Duvall (Carnivàle,The Grudge, Identity), Nick Cannon (Monster House) and Shea Whigham (Machete, Splinter, Blood Creek) and is currently available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
5 Skulls - The Best
4 Skulls - Very Good
3 Skulls - Good / Average
2 Skulls - Poor
1 Skull - The Worst