Review: “The Killing Room” (2009)

(The movie recommendation came courtesy of Marc from G-C-T, who dubbed “The Killing Room” an offbeat gem in this post.)

“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.

Grade: B+

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18 Responses

  1. What a brilliant opening paragraph. You can write.

    I’ve never even heard of this film. The cast is compelling but your review really sold me. This sounds right up my proverbial ally.

    • Oh me, your words are so much kinder than I deserve. But yes, Marc was right-on about this one; it’s definitely an “offbeat gem” that I believe was an official Sundance selection. “The Killing Room” really shows how much you can do with so little.

  2. hmm, i apparently didn’t share your enthusiasm with this one…though i had to go back and check my review to recall how i felt about it exactly.

    well written review! …i just happen to not agree with it. 🙂

  3. I liked this one as well. It’s always good to see a flick like this that does so much with so little. Sometimes even I need a break from the big effects and gore that continually cross my TV screen night after night!

    • I’m started to give psychological thrillers and horror movies more of a chance these days. “The Killing Room” pleasantly surprised me.

  4. I think this movie was terrible, I usually like off beat. As I watched I hoped it would end soon. Interesting what people like.

    • I’m a fan of anything low-key and anything that does “so much with so little” (see above), and I think “The Killing Room” succeeded in both counts. I’m also amazed at how much fear and tension Liebesman was able to create considering he used almost no gore. Snack on that, Eli Roth.

  5. “so much with so little” makes me think of Splinter 2008, very cool!

  6. You have convinced me, I have just put it on my rental list.

    • If you hate it, please send all livid e-mails to: Marc, c/o G-C-T, at http://goseetalk.com/.

      Just kidding … I’ll take the heat for it. “The Killing Room” isn’t exactly groundbreaking cinema, but what it does it does well. I think.

  7. Might have to check this one out. I’m always up for watching something with Ms. Sevigny in it, but man has she had some real disasters (the remake of Sisters anybody?) I guess you’ll get that from somebody who sticks strictly to the indie circuit.

  8. Just got around to seeing it. Not bad, not brilliant either. By halfway through I had it all figured out and knew exactly how it would end. I turned out I was completely wrong, it nice to be surprised. I think the strangers locked in a room thing has been done to death now.

  9. […] 6, 2010 by fandangogroovers I had never heard of Traitor until I saw the trailer on The Killing Room Despite positive reviews the film only had a very limited cinema release both here and in America, […]

  10. […] huge helping of both and will literally keep you on the edge of your seat…and sufficiently rack your brain for days to come. But while looking at the cover at the unimpressive cast (especially Nick Cannon) 90% of people […]

  11. […] huge helping of both and will literally keep you on the edge of your seat…and sufficiently rack your brain for days to come. But while looking at the cover at the unimpressive cast (especially Nick Cannon) 90% of people […]

  12. I remember watching this movie and hating it for some reason, but in all honesty I can’t remember why. If I were to guess, it would be the premise, the reason behind the room. I remember thinking that I wouldn’t review it because I’d already written two spiteful reviews that day, a third would have sent me to the booby hatch.
    A question I often ask: Timothy Hutton, why? How did he slip so far down the movie ladder? He’s an Oscar winner, dammit, and had a spell for a while when all he could do was top notch stuff. Now he appears in The Alphabet Killer, or this, or…well, pretty much anything recently. Nero clearly cursed him when he left.

  13. […] huge helping of both and will literally keep you on the edge of your seat…and sufficiently rack your brain for days to come. But while looking at the cover at the unimpressive cast (especially Nick Cannon) 90% of people […]

  14. Denial and culpability are the powerful themes of this movie. I compare its powerful message to the classic “1984.” As a labor activist for 36 years I’ve witnessed people in power, or those “highly educated” willing to wreck havoc on people’s lives with exactly the same reactions as both “the eerie (hardened) Dr. Phillips (Peter Stormare) and the (achieving, success driven, in denial) Ms. Reilly (Chloë Sevigny).
    The famous Milgram study is clearly the basis for this film making it very hard to watch knowing that such “fiction” has already been tested with real humans, albeit, no one was hurt but the reactions were identical.
    It will be interesting to see, if the U.S. continues to become more fragmented, will this generate less or more empathy towards our fellow humans.
    A recent University of Michigan study involving 14,000 over 30 years, suggests less. (“College students have less empathy than past generations.”)
    As I learned in a graduate film class, science fiction is about the present not the future.
    As I was reading over the comments here, those that appeared to be from younger folk were clueless to the under laying message. Most probably never heard of the famous Milgram study and experiment. Watching the old film of this experiment makes the “Killing Room” all the more chilling. Four stars!!!

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