“The Killing Room” is an instructional film in the sense that it has a lesson to teach us: There’s something about a locked room with white walls that all the special effects and torture implements in the world can’t touch. Mark this down as a makeover of the extremest type for director Jonathan Liebesman, who in the dreadful “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” saw subtlety in half with a chainsaw, then made his actors to roll around in its drippins. Apparently he learned his lesson because “The Killing Room” is an exercise in restraint — the psychological, relentlessly tense kind that squeezes the air right out of your lungs and frays the nerves. Prepare to be shaken, and hard.
With nary a sound, the film opens with a series of notes about highly classified, secretive experiments sanctioned by the U.S. government designed to determine the breaking point of the human mind. Most believe the program was shut down, but the eerie Dr. Phillips (Peter Stormare) knows better. Hardened by years of experience, he offers Ms. Reilly (Chloë Sevigny), the young military psychologist determined to join his team, the chance to bail out when she’s barely set foot in the facility — not a promising sign. Yet even Reilly, described as “ruthless” by her superiors, can’t hide her horror at what she sees happen to the experiment participants: Kerry (Clea DuVall), Paul (Nick Cannon), Crawford (Timothy Hutton) and Tony (Shea Wigham). Lured in by the promise of a $250 payout, they expect to kill a few hours bubbling in dots with No. 2 pencils, maybe studying a few Rorschach prints or talking about their feelings. Dr. Phillips’ sudden point-blank execution of one of the participants puts a bullet in their misconceptions.
The lump sum of what mind-warping, psyche-shattering things that happen to Kerry, Paul, Crawford and Tony is best left for viewers to discover, for even though Gus Krieger and Ann Peacock’s taut, measured screenplay doesn’t reinvent the lightbulb it still contains a few surprises (including a monumentally disturbing, sock-you-in-the-stomach conclusion). Or perhaps it’s more on point to say that the writers use the script to lay a series of traps for the viewers to fall into. Every time. Consider this: The remaining candidates, now quivering with shock, are instructed to give numerical answers to a series of questions, and those numbers determine who will die second, then third. Random selection, however, doesn’t appear to suit Dr. Phillips’ personality, but he keeps his motives hidden until the end — a device that, again, isn’t terribly original but is terribly effective … especially because it’s Peter “Grimsrud” Stormare, who, like Jackie Earle Haley, possesses the unique ability to conjure skin-crawling menace without uttering a syllable.
Almost without exception, the rest of the actors deliver strong turns meant not to show great depth of character (“The Killing Room” isn’t that kind of film) but to enhance the atmosphere of unrelenting constriction Liebesman sets up. They fall neatly into types, not personalities, which makes “The Killing Room” all the more impersonal and frightening. Within the first five minutes, Hutton establishes Crawford as the alpha male of the bunch, a survivalist capable of nimble thinking and even quicker footwork who hides protective instincts. Wigham immediately identifies Tony as the conspiracy theorist prone to losing his cool in high-stress situations, while Cannon — a likable enough actor if not a great or even particularly good one — adapts well to Paul’s role as the taciturn mysterious loner/wild card, the character so shifty that everyone implicity mistrusts him.
Equally enigmatic, though, is Sevigny’s Ms. Reilly. Never a showy actress, Sevigny lets the character seem remote and aloof in her words, but the eyes and mouth reveal her inner struggle. She seems at most points like one of the participants: unhinged and scared, searching for any exit strategy. In another way, though, Reilly functions as a stand-in for viewers themselves. For much of the film, she knows little more than we do. Presented from her limited, uninformed onlooker perspective, “The Killing Room” becomes even more disconcerting. She can’t escape the maze she’s in, and so there’s no hope for us, either.