With Obama promising to close Guantanamo Bay, The Killing Room feels like it might have hit about two years too late. Lazily described as Cube meets Saw with a heavy helping of The War on Terror, The Killing Room opens with text explaining the discontinued CIA MK-Ultra experiments and then takes us into Chloe Sevigny’s first day at her new job, which is a top secret continuation of that mind control program. She’s a behavioral expert who can tell she’s being lied to by the look on your face, but she’s not ready for the truly fucked up things Dr. Peter Stormare has going on in his lab. Although when you get into a behavior experiment with Peter Stormare at the head I can’t imagine how you don’t expect fucked up things.
Four people come into a stark white room. They think they’re there for a psychological test for which they’ll be paid. Timothy Hutton, dressed as The Edge, is the old pro at being a guinea pig. Clea DuVall is a bright, friendly young girl who is new to this. Shea Whigham is the dumbass. Nick Cannon is the quiet, scared, possibly homeless kid. Things get pretty awful pretty quickly, though, as one of them is shot in the head and Stormare announces that the experiment is to see which of them will survive a four stage elimination process.
Jonathan Liebesman, who directed Darkness Falls, builds some excellent tension in the first half hour of the film. There’s a sense that anything can happen, and we watch what’s going on from the point of view of the ‘candidates’ as well as from Stormare and Sevigny’s eagle eye POV. The situation is tightly controlled, with specific stimuli popping up at specific times to test these people and weed out which ones need to be eliminated.
But the script fails Liebesman, and the second act becomes a serious drag. The momentum slows as it becomes apparent that the eliminations will be decided by trivia questions and that the stimuli won’t ever be of the gory, violent kind. The psychological back and forth between the characters is interesting, but drags on and on, giving the film the feeling of a running time much, much longer than its hour and forty minutes.
The Killing Room isn’t looking to satisfy your gore needs, and it’s not a torture porn movie – it’s a psychological thriller in the purest sense of the term. This isn’t a movie where people are cutting each other or themselves apart to stay alive but rather a movie where people are trying to out think each other and the controllers to stay alive. It’s higher minded than you might think, and with some judicious trimming in that second act it might really work the way it wants to work – as thriller and political statement.
To the script’s credit it does manage to deliver a killer ending that I didn’t see coming, despite spending the entire running time trying to second guess the twist that was obviously in store. The final minutes and the propulsive, mysterious first act are elements of a damn good movie; it’s the stuff in the middle that keeps it from being all it can be.