by Matt Boyd Smith
The Belko Experiment opens just as the employees of Belko Industries are coming in to work. Their massive office building is a gleaming glass and steel structure that is conspicuously out of place in the middle of nowhere outside the city of Bogotá, Colombia. When they arrive at the office, protagonist Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr.) notices something is off: there is an extra level of security screening outside, and cars are backed up for some time as they are searched by men in military-style uniforms. The process is a lot more like attempting to gain access to a military base than simply getting into work for the day. And when Mike asks desk guard Evan (James Earl) what’s going on, all Evan knows is that there’s some sort of security risk they’re looking into, which means they’ve also sent all non-American employees home for the day. That leaves 80 people in the office, and their day gets very bad very soon.
After a normal start to the workday, including phone calls, office politics, and other day-to-day stuff, a voice comes over the building’s intercom system. It tells them that they are trapped inside and must kill three people in the next twenty minutes or there will be consequences. Faced with the moral issues of killing innocent people – especially ones they know personally -the employees don’t meet the deadline and three people end up dead anyway. The backs of their heads are blown off by tiny bombs which were implanted in their skulls by Belko under the guise of being tracking devices, a security precaution against kidnapping in Colombia. When the next pronouncement comes across the speakers, they are informed that in two hours they must kill thirty people or sixty of them will die. The film’s plot machinations then begin in earnest, and we follow several subplots as various employees attempt different ways of getting around the reality of their situation. One group tries to hang banners off the building’s roof, a couple of them try to hide in the elevator shaft, and another (upper management, of course, played brilliantly by Tony Goldwyn and John C. McGinley) decides that murdering the unfit is a rational choice for the greater good. What follows is a slightly misshapen commentary on office politics, capitalist rationalism, and the ethical quandaries of being an American citizen in a globalized society. (I’m not going to talk about the last one in depth, but it’s there, trust me…I mean the film is set in Bogotá for a reason.)
The nastiness, violence, and broad humor of the film should come as no surprise to anyone aware of James Gunn’s work before he became the guy who made The Guaridans of the Galaxy into a massive hit for Marvel Studios and one of the most in-demand writing and directing talents in Hollywood. Tonally similar to Super, the pitch-black and brutally violent comedy about a mentally ill man who decides to suit up as a hero and take on a drug ring in his hometown, The Belko Experiment returns to some of Gunn’s familiar territory as a filmmaker. And he is assisted capably by director Greg McLean, best known as the director of the nihilistic Wolf Creek films (and whose Rogue is one of my favorite indie horror films of the past decade). McLean possesses a raw, unflinching sensibility behind the camera, which is displayed to great effect in the scenes of carnage that make up the latter half of the film. The ability to flit back and forth between great character moments and scenes of horrific violence is one of his great strengths as a filmmaker, and if you were a fan of how Wolf Creek blended those sensibilities in the performance of John Jarratt as the Outback killer Mick Taylor, then you’ll find some comfort in the portrayals of John C. McGinley’s Wendell Dukes or Brent Sexton’s mild-mannered middle management turned savage murderer Vince Agostino.
The film doesn’t always work, however, and as much as I like the film, there are moments that are wildly uneven. For one, unlike Gunn’s other work, which can be just as batshit, it doesn’t entirely deliver on its premise. The murders are rather routine and efficient, which might function as a commentary on the “following orders” trope of these sorts of experiments and the realities of preaching efficiency and emphasizing cost-benefit analysis as the be-all end-all of the American public consciousness with regard to capitalism, but which is not all that interesting or suspenseful for as long a duration as the film holds to them. Once the guns come out and are put in the hands of the ruthless upper management faction, there’s a lot of shooting and not a lot else, and a fair chunk of the inventive potential for the film’s violence goes away. That may not seem like a big deal, but to genre audiences this will no doubt be an issue. The audience reactions in my screening to the deaths of both McGinley and Goldwyn’s characters were by far the most vocal and satisfying, and each was punctuated by a sense of absurdity as they were dispatched in visually explicit close-ups of skull-crushing and -splitting carnage juxtaposed with the mundanity of the office environment and the tools available to routine employees. Horror fans want those moments, and audiences in it for social commentary seem to also be in it for those punctuated retaliatory satisfactions. Anyone who has seen Jordan Peele’s brilliant horror film Get Out knows how cathartic the brutal vengeance of that film’s final act plays with an audience who is fully on board with what is happening. The potential for that satisfaction exists in The Belko Experiment, but sometimes feels neutered not just by a concern for getting a theatrical release and a firm R rating, but rather a conceptual hiccup whereby guns equal mass death, but themselves are not situationally commented upon in a manner consistent with the film’s other built-in social commentary.
Still, all in all I really did enjoy myself. I think The Belko Experiment is yet another strong horror film in couple of years that have seen many, many of them. It features some really great an unexpected performances from a variety of “I know that person!” faces, including Michael Rooker who is great as usual in a small but memorable role. In its best moments this is the nihilistic capitalist horror film we so desperately need in the age of full-blown neoliberal and libertarian impulses. If you can get past its conceptual problems as a horror film, I think you’ll have a good time, too.