Moral codes are tested in ‘The Belko Experiment’, but who’s testing who?

We never truly know what we’d do in a situation until we’re placed deep within it. Sure, we can plan, practice, and pontificate about what we’d do in a life-or-death moment, but we never really know until it happens. In that moment, we know more about ourselves than we ever did before. That concept is at the heart of The Belko Experiment, the latest horror film directed by Greg McLean (Wolf Creek) and written by James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy/Tromeo and Juliet), which places a group of unsuspecting office workers smack in the center of a kill-or-be-killed scenario. Tagged as Battle Royale-meets-Office Space, Belko is more akin to the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 social experiment driven to the extreme, with normal individuals pushed into an inescapable power dynamic just to see what happens. An overall entertaining flick that never verges into boredom through its sheer inventiveness of murder and mayhem, The Belko Experiment sets forth challenges that are neither new nor clever. Audiences will absolutely delight in the carnage, yet find themselves longing for a stronger payoff by the end.

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Center: Tony Goldwyn as Barry Norris tries to calm his employees.

Somewhere tucked in the rural landscape of Bogota, Columbia, resides the office building for Belko Industries, an enigmatic American company with ties to the American government. On a random weekday, with the local employees sent home, all eighty of the international staff are subjected to a building lockdown. Unsure what to make of the situation – some believing it’s a prank, while others think it’s a security system malfunction – they gather in the building lobby to listen to the highest ranking Belko employee, COO Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn).  Barry manages to calm his staff down until a voice over the intercom removes all doubt of the seriousness of their situation with a simple direction: they must kill two people or four will die in the next thirty minutes. This is the beginning of a series of rules and regulations the Voice provides to set friend upon friend, using the desire for life and freedom as leverage.

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L-R: Michael Rooker as Bud and David Dastmalchian as Lonny.

The concept of The Belko Experiment is both its greatest strength and weakness. Horror relies on some sense of the unknown, especially in the case of social breakdown, to create tension through uncertainty. Here, however, the audience is clued in very quickly that the employees are engaged in a deadly social experiment to gauge how each of them reacts to the situation. Gratefully, the employees also realize this quickly – finding cameras, malfunctioning building equipment, and other notable objects – and set about finding ways around their situation. This plays as a strength because it not only helps the grim reality set in for the employees faster, but also ensures the audience believes in the intelligence of each character (a strong result of Gunn’s clever writing). Unfortunately, this also means that two expected things occur: a shift of the group into two factions (violent and non-violent participants) and a heavy reliance on the discussion of morality during the quiet moments. And there are many quiet moments; more so than you’d expect from a film whose trailer suggests unrelenting mayhem from the moment steel barricades cover every inch of glass on the building. Rather than maintaining an unrelenting pace or going for the expected ramp-up, Belko chooses to be dominated by quiet moments, often choosing discussion over action, which more often hammers into the audience the moral conundrum at the heart of the story. Arguably, this is necessary given the dynamic set up between Barry and Mike (John Gallagher Jr. of 10 Cloverfield Lane), a Systems manager whose pacifism comes in direct contrast to Barry’s pragmatic complacency to the Voice, but it retracts from the anarchy audiences expect.

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Director Greg McLean works with Rooker on set.

Though, this reviewer wonders if that might be the entire point of The Belko Experiment. Much like the disembodied Voice, audiences want to see unadulterated carnage. That’s the bill of goods they were sold from the kinetic trailers highlighting coworkers killing coworkers. But it’s hard not to wonder if, just maybe, the audience is unaware that they are part of the experiment. If the reaction to the film is just another test taking place, then the disillusionment and disappointment regarding the reduction of expected violence felt by the audience may be simply another benchmark in the testing McClean and Gunn set forth with The Belko Experiment. This implies a a level of subtext absent within the horror genre since 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods, another horror film that flipped audience expectations and horror conventions.

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Mysterious group watches the mayhem unfold.

Given the cast assembled for Belko, this type of subversive experimental mindfuckery is possible. James Gunn regulars Michael Rooker (The Walking Dead) and Sean Gunn (Gilmore Girls) manage small roles with enormous efficacy. Rooker’s Bud gives off an air of smoldering menace with each glance, yet seems eager to work with Mike to restore balance to the building. It’s a surprising turn for fans used to seeing Rooker’s delightful scene-chewing performances common when working with James Gunn, but in Belko, the expected is often the thing that gets you killed. Another turn of breaking convention, Sean Gunn’s relaxed stoner kitchen employee Marty provides audiences a few laughs expected of this stereotypical character; however, the surprise here is that Marty also provides the most insight regarding their dire situation. Joining the James Gunn team is Gallagher Jr, Goldwyn, Adria Arjona (True Detective), and John C. McGinley (Scrubs). Gallagher Jr.’s Mike provides the moral center of the film, utilizing Gallagher Jr.’s cinematic reputation as “the good guy” to great effect. Even when pushed to the brink, Mike remains a stalwart coworker, seeking other solutions to survive than murder. On the flipside, Goldwyn’s performance as Barry – the COO set upon murdering his employees – delivers is far more nuanced. Through mere glances, facial expressions, and subtle vocal delivery choices, Goldwyn conveys the internal destruction that his morally crushing behavior is reeking upon his soul. While Arjona’s Leandra and McGinley’s Wendell offer up characters whose choices for action or in-action are driven by the company they keep. Leandra wants to survive, but struggles with the concept of killing; whereas, Wendell seems to take actual delight in the opportunity to violently dispatch his coworkers. Leandra and Wendell provide necessary foils for Mike and Barry at each stage of their moral endurance or corruption.

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John Gallagher Jr. as Mike.

On the whole, I think audiences will be surprised by The Belko Experiment. Though whether that’s for the good or bad, it’s hard to say. Audiences expecting a straight-forward, tight hack-and-slash murderous romp may be let down from the generous amount of downtime provided from the discussion of morality and lack of a proper payoff by the climax. On the other hand, if my intuition is right, and the audience is part of the social experiment, then there’s a real chance for Belko to become a much discussed cinematic endeavor. Horror is frequently a cathartic tool, but it’s easy to forget that it can also be a means to open a discussion. Not just a what would you do? or a could you?; rather, a better question would be: why do you want to watch? Now that’s a discussion worth having.

Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.

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