The Killing Room

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

26 July

CIA created, 1947

On this day in 1947, the National Security Act was enacted by the US Congress.

Among other things, it created the Central Intelligence Agency, the successor agency to the Office of Strategic Services, which had been formed during the Second World War to coordinate spying against the Axis powers. The CIA is responsible for counterterrorism, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, intelligence, counter-intelligence and cyber-intelligence. In 1963 the CIA’s budget was $550million ($4.2 billion inflation-adjusted). By 2013 it was $14.7 billion. It is the only US government agency allowed to use “unvouchered” funds – those without any external oversight or accounting.

The Killing Room (2009, dir: Jonathan Liebesman)

The “four guys in a room” thriller suits our paranoid times of government snooping, wars waged patently on dishonest principles and the like. The Killing Room joins this expanding genre and is unusual for throwing a couple of proper name actors into the mix – this sort of thing also being notably cheap, it doesn’t tend to attract anyone you’d recognise.

Chloe Sevigny is the most standout of the well-known. But here’s the kicker – she’s not one of the victims being tantalised and tested by persons unknown; she’s one of the scientists making the labrats jump through hoops. Instead the unlucky foursome are played by Clea DuVall, Shea Whigham, Nick Cannon and Timothy Hutton, with the action jumping off when head scientist Dr Phillips arrives to greet the newbies, pulls out a gun and shoots one of them in the head, then beetles off to watch the reactions of the others on the monitors fed by the room’s wall-to-wall cameras. Why he did this, whether the others are going to die – and how – that’s what the film is all about. As to who dies right up at the beginning – take a look at the cast list and work out whose name isn’t that familiar.

Sevigny plays the rookie psychologist hired to run over the data produced by the experiment, and the other question the film is asking is: will she put up with this sort of extreme, illegal, bloodthirsty madness? Right up front in an intertitle we’ve been told that the film is inspired by the MKUltra program that the CIA ran – mind control, essentially – but it seems more informed by the Milgram Shock Experiment, which took volunteers and tested them to see how much pain they would inflict on a test subject if ordered to do so by a guy in a lab coat carrying a clipboard.

The Milgram experiment was deeply flawed in terms of its set-up, and it’s easy to suggest that The Killing Room isn’t a 100 per cent success either. But it is neatly constructed and it gives Peter Stormare a chance to once again delight us with one of his mad/evil turns as the unhinged Dr Phillips. Sevigny is required to look cool externally, while inwardly bottling her increasing turmoil, and pulls it off. There’s good work too by Timothy Hutton as the twitchiest and most intelligent of the experimentees.

For references, look no further than the cult Canadian thriller Cube, whose DNA seems to have been copied quite extensively. But there are also oblique references to the 1960s British spy TV series The Avengers, not least the fact that Stormare is referred to as “Mother” on several occasions, also the name of Avengers honcho John Steed’s male control at whatever shadowy British government agency Steed worked at when he wasn’t visiting his tailor.

As for the much-derided twist finish, it is completely ridiculous. You, along with me when I saw it, will be saying, “What, all that work just to achieve this?” However, the film does ask other uncomfortable subliminal questions, not least in its racial profiling and the way the whiter shade of pale Sevigny interacts with the duskier people she comes across. I will say no more except to say The Killing Room is worth a look.

Why Watch?

  • A taut psychological thriller
  • Chloe Sevigny, always a class act
  • Jonathan Liebesman’s crisp, clean shooting style
  • Guess the twist ending

The Killing Room – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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