Although I was aware that the premise of THE BELKO EXPERIMENT involved a great deal of death and other bad behaviors, I wasn’t quite prepared for just how vicious and colorfully gory things would get. And I mean that in the best possible way. Australian director Greg McLean (the WOLF CREEK films, ROGUE, THE DARKNESS), working from a years-old screenplay from filmmaker James Gunn (SLITER, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY), clearly made the decision early on that holding back wasn’t an option. The result is a work that is meant to be as morally difficult and anarchic as it is a commentary on the darker side of human nature and the emotional emptiness of the corporate world.
Set and shot in Colombia, THE BELKO EXPERIMENT concerns a group of 80 Americans who work for the titular corporation. Doing what? Nobody seems quite sure, but the money must be good enough that they’d agree to move to South America, isolated from family and friends (something that truly comes across in the actors, who had to experience the production in a similar fashion). Although this is very much an ensemble piece, the de facto “hero” of the movie is Mike Milch (10 CLOVERFIELD LANE’s John Gallagher Jr.), a normal, slightly geeky guy, who is well liked by everyone and is even having a secret dalliance with co-worker Leandra (Adria Arjona). She, in turn, is being creeped on by John C. McGinley’s Wendell, who insists she’s putting out signals in his direction. Running the office is COO Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn)
Coming to work one day, everyone notices that the Colombian locals who also work in the building are being turned away at the security gate, and before long, everyone notices that the Americans are the only ones in the office. Suddenly, every door and window is blocked with metal plates, and a voice comes over the intercom saying that unless the employees kill two of their numbers, four of them will be killed by other means. It turns out that each of them has a chip in their neck, said to be a tracking device in case someone is kidnapped. In fact, they are tiny bombs that make your head explode when the unseen overlords deem it necessary. Not surprisingly, no murder occurs, and as a result, four heads go missing. The next instruction is that 30 workers must be killed to avoid 60 people being executed, and this is when things get interesting.
What THE BELKO EXPERIMENT successfully illustrates is what competitive reality shows have been showing us for years: people divide into teams, with the vague understanding that at some point teammates will likely turn on each other when necessary. Mike refuses to consider murdering anyone, while Barry, Wendell, and a few others want to find a democratic or otherwise logical way to single out 30 candidates to die. It’s a stomach-churning process, with ulterior motives and lingering office politics/relationships playing a big part in the decision making. Depending on what part of the building they are in, some co-workers immediately turn on each other, so the deaths happen in the heat of the moment. Using a clever lighting scheme and inventive camera movement, director McClean does a tremendous job reminding us that even in a confined space like an office building, there are many different environments that are quite different—from the basement to the roof and all the offices, lobby, stairwells and elevators in between.
Another fantastic touch is the casting. Most of the actors in THE BELKO EXPERIMENT are people whose faces you’ll recognize, even if you can’t quite come up with their names. There are obvious exceptions (especially for trained cinephiles), but placing performers like Michael Rooer, David Dastmalchian, Sean Gunn, Rusty Schwimmer, Abraham Benrubi, and Melonie Diaz in crowd scenes approximates the feel of working in a large office full of people we see every day but don’t know much about. And every character is actually given a personality and something to do that distinguishes them in this dilemma.
Gunn’s patented twisted sense of humor and is certainly present here, but for the most part, he and McLean keep things serious and grounded in a type of reality. It should go without saying that no character’s life is sacred, and it becomes clear at a certain point late in the game that the ultimate goal of this horrifying new reality is a single survivor (I’m not confirming that’s what actually happens, by the way), which is difficult to accept because the filmmakers have loaded the film with so many great characters. Gallagher gives a great performance as one of the few characters who lives long enough to have something resembling an arc, going from a man who refuses to play this death game to one of its more energetic participants.
THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is astonishingly gory, so much so that I can’t believe it got an R rating. As someone who isn’t bothered by such things, I relished in this aspect of the film, but some may not suffer well the killing of so many innocents. If you like your genre work on the edgy and troubling side of the street, look no further.