Raw meat. That’s what opens thriller The Belko Experiment, in which 80 employees of an American corporation in Colombia get trapped inside their office building and are told to murder each other.
Assuming we know what it is we’re getting into, the shots of animal carcasses being skinned and thrown around a market do seem a little on-the-nose, but subtlety has never been director Greg McClean’s calling card. Just read the taglines for his previous films: “The Thrill is in the Hunt.” “How Fast Can You Swim?” Or, my personal favorite, from Wolf Creek 2: “Based on True Events.”
More interesting are the scenes following, in which we watch the “locals,” as the Colombian citizens are regularly referred to, haggle over their wares and compete for the attention of tourists like John Gallagher Jr. – or Mike, as he’s regularly called – as they sit in traffic. The first jump scare of the film comes in the form of a small corn-cob novelty, replete with eyes and appendages, jumping into Mike’s peripheral vision while he’s on the phone. Yikes! The camera sort of zooms in on the figure, ominous music swelling as he stares at the homemade toy, held aloft by an old woman. The climax of the moment? He purchases the thing, of course.
Such are the dual tracks of the film: scenes of carnage – doled out by and across a rich collection of button-downs and high heels – followed by allegorical interjections of contemporary capitalism run amok. Belko turns out to be a company that doesn’t do much of anything; it’s an American corporation that assists NGO’s in doing… something with numbers, I gathered from the endless rows of pie charts and bar graphs plastered on the computer monitors throughout the office. Mike realizes this over halfway into the movie, when he says out loud something along the lines of “Think about it. What do we do here?” Good ol’ Mike.
Mike turns out to be about as good as they come. He’s an infallible protagonist, driven only by his need to save lives and defend the morality that is guaranteed to fly out the window when the place gets locked down and a voice comes over the speaker to tell everyone to start tallying their kills. Somehow, he avoids taking all but a single life throughout much of the movie. In the most silly and obtrusive and fun stylistic flourish of the film, he beats someone to death in a dark room as a projector floods the scene with images of quarterly earnings and line graphs.
The boss – the COO of Belko – is our antagonist, and he earns that title quite quickly and admirably by attempting to break into the armory of the building – yes, the armory of the office building – along with two other older white men, one of whom has been proven a creep by hitting on Mike’s girlfriend, whose name I really couldn’t catch. (No disrespect to the actresses of the film, of which there are 2 of note – Adria Arjona and Mikaela Hoover – and who both do their jobs with commitment and charisma.) These three complete the trifecta of the worst winners of capitalism – a borderline psychopath, a self-loathing wimp who betrays nearly everyone to help himself along, and a hard-knuckled Ayn Rand-reading justifier of his own poor behavior. Spoiler: the bad guys get into the armory, eventually, solidifying their grip on the resources of the place. Looking at the whole thing as a ridiculous extrapolation of the American workspace, there’s some joy in hearing the boss yell about why he should choose who’s living and who’s dying. Especially when Mike, our little hero, is sitting over there in the corner, bleeding from his head.
Noticeably absent from this scene are any noteworthy people of color – the employees are 98% white-as-paper, even as the story unfolds in Bogotá, Colombia. This is addressed by saying, more than once, “they sent the locals home today.” The narrative explanation for why this happens may hold water, but less convincing is these peoples’ absence from the film’s consciousness: the most interesting point of whatever satire Belko is going for would certainly include its own globalism – that awkward and complicated relationship set up at the beginning when Mike buys his little native novelty.
But, alas, the movie tends to strongly prefer the sight of meat being thrown about. The violence too often feels bland, which might have something to do with the lack of color in the movie; everything is gray and black and dark metal, the outfits of the employees depressingly like those of real office workers. I longed for the movie to embrace its dystopic, allegorical setting and make everything stark white, or covered in neon touch screens, just so the bloodstains might stand out. Instead, there’s a lot of gore, and it’s sort of by-the-numbers, cold and calculated; a slasher where the minute-to-death ratio is almost 1:1. The result isn’t so unlike watching recordings of cows being systematically slaughtered in a factory. Why do I care so much more about the cows?
In theaters March 17, 2017.