Sundance 2009: "The Killing Room"
Jonathan Liebesman has not had the most distinguished career as a horror filmmaker thus far. In 2003, he directed the wretched "Darkness Falls," which was one of the first Revolution Studios films, and which was heavily rethought and reshot during production. He didn't make another feature until "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning" in 2006, which was also putrid. Both of them seemed corporate and anonymous, and neither one demonstrated any particular sense of style.
In fact, the only thing of his I've liked so far was essentially an infomercial, a short film called "Rings" that served as a DVD bridge between "The Ring" and "The Ring Two". That, at least, seemed to understand that horror needs some subtext if it's really going to resonate. Based on that short, I made the choice to give him one last chance with his entry in this year's Midnight Series.
Glad I did.
"The Killing Room" is more of a thriller than a horror film in a conventional sense, but like most great horror films, this isn't just about the events you're watching. Liebesman uses the spectre of the MK-ULTRA experiments in the '60s and '70s to create a situation that holds up an ugly and relatively unflinching look at the torture-culture we find ourselves in post 9/11.
And, yes, I know that the moment you mention 9/11 as any sort of subtext, or the moment something seems even vaguely critical of the United States, many people tune out because that's not what they want from their entertainment. Their loss. Even if you don't dig deep enough to think through what it is that Liebesman and his writers Gus Krieger and Anne Peacock are really up to, the movie works as an exercise in tense suspense. It's one of those films that really puts an audience through an emotional roller-coaster ride, and by the time Liebesman drops his final puzzle piece in place, it feels satisfying, like he earns every last reaction.
Chloe Sevigny stars as a young FBI behavioral expert whose specialty is physiological responses and the underlying meanings. In essence, she's trained herself to be a human lie detector, and she's based much of her academic work on the early research of Dr. Phillips (Peter Stormare), who has now summoned her for a meeting and, if all goes well, a job. What she doesn't realize is that Dr. Phillips vanished from the world of theoretical work into practical application for a black ops program that has been build on the bedrock of the MK-ULTRA programs, and once he shows her exactly what he's up to, she has to wrestle with her own humanity to decide if she will let herself be involved.
He begins by showing her a tape of a previous experiment, all the recorded data all put together, in which four strangers were recruited randomly and brought to a specially designed room, where they were asked to fill out a questionaire. Timothy Hutton, Nick Cannon, Clea Duvall, and Shea Wigham play the four recruits, and almost as soon as the experiment begins, Liebesman pulls the rug out from under the audience and Sevigny alike. What's really going on? Is she being studied, or has Stormare really pushed all boundaries of decency in his effort to... well... that's sort of the question. As the experiment heaps one cruelty after another on these people, you have to wonder what the point is. Is this just another exercise in empty movie sadism, where we watch characters treated terribly because it's supposedly exciting? Or does the experiment have an endgame built in, and if so, could anything justify this sort of activity?
In some ways, this reminded me of "How To Get Rid Of The Others," an awesome dark comedy I saw at Fantastic Fest last year, but since "The Killing Room" doesn't leaven the punches with anything like a light moment, it's tougher going. The acting is solid from everyone, with Hutton proving to be the real stand-out. It's nice to see Sevigny playing a lead, and she's absolutley up for the challenge. She's the one who is supposedly the audience's sympathetic entry point, so several of the choices she makes really push the audience. What would you do? Would you make the choices she does? And even if you wouldn't, can you understand why she does?
This one's got some real commercial potential, and I wouldn't be surprised to see someone like a Lionsgate or a Screen Gems try to sell it broadly. Hats off to Liebesman for finally making a film that showcases his evidently genuine skill, both with the camera and with his cast, and for making a movie that asks some hard questions about just how far we're willing to go to fight an enemy we believe to be utterly insane.