Sundance 2009: 'The Killing Room' Review


I'll preface this review by stating a plain opinion: I am not a fan of the films directed by Mr. Jonathan Liebesman. One was a flaccid PG-13 wankfest (Darkness Falls) and the other was the grungy-yet-way too familiar Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. But I respect the fact that this director stays in the horror field, because that tells me he's a fan of the genre and he's intent on making some good films. And hey, at least for me, the third time is the charm, as far as Liebesman is concerned.

The filmmaker's latest is a rough and tough psychological thriller called The Killing Room, and it's about a group of four strangers who are brought together for a paid experiment -- but they're actually in for a whole lot more anguish than they expected. Turns out the testing is overseen by a devious scientist who works well outside the realm of government control and law enforcement. And simple morality. Basically, the goal here is to see how human lab rats react when confronted by a shocking bit of violence followed by a lengthy stint of incarceration.

The script is canny enough to keep you guessing throughout the plot's more conventional contortions, but The Killing Room earns some fair praise for actually TRYING to keep you guessing. That's not to say that the flick hinges entirely upon some big, shocking twist, but one feels a sense of gratitude when a horror-thriller even bothers with unexpected divergences or surprises that feel relatively satisfying. Plus the final zinger is actually pretty cool, albeit in a very dark and cynical way.

And even when the flick slows down (which, to be honest, it does once in a while), the good news is that Liebesman is working with a colorful ensemble that has no trouble keeping the action interesting. Timothy Hutton, Shea Whigham, Clea Duvall, and Nick Cannon are the lab rats, and the overseers are played by a villainous Peter Stormare and an unsure Chloe Sevigny. Not a weak link among the cast, if you ask me, and they do a fine job of keeping a potentially outlandish concept grounded in a reality we can actually recognize.

The film's best moments come during the opening set-up and the closing sequences, but there's certainly enough here to warrant a look. The Killing Room feels more like a surprisingly engaging cable flick / DVD rental than it does a full-bore "Friday Night Out" sort of movie, but genre fans who like a little psychological mayhem mixed in with their more traditional carnage should find something to like in this scrappy little chiller.