Sundance: We Review Nick Cannon’s ‘The Killing Room’

Saturday afternoon at the Library (one of the few venues at Sundance that really is a movie theater all year round) I was treated to a press screening of “The Killing Room,” by far the best movie I’ve seen so far.

It’s not your typical “art house” film about gay cowboys eating pudding. It’s not the type of film likely to win any awards. It is, however, brutal, daring and utterly unpedictable – three qualities quite rare in movies these days.

A barely-recognizable Nick Cannon is one of four unaware “guinea pigs,” locked in a plain white room after responding to a classified ad for a case study. They fear that the study’s effects might give them nausea or diarrhea; oh God, they don’t know the half of it.

Blood, guns, gas and psychological warfare are thrown around the room like “Community Chest” cards on a Monopoly board. Trivia questions are asked that even Ken Jennings couldn’t possibly answer – that’s the point; these guys are screwed. They’re told that only one will leave the room alive, and we wonder whether the string-pullers will even be that generous.

The audience’s advantage over the “contestants” comes in the form of Peter Stormare and Chloe Sevigny, who overlook the events from behind one-way glass, studying their responses for the government. Cold, icy and mysterious, it’s the best performance I’ve seen by either in years.

Ditto for Timothy Hutton, a hit-or-miss actor who hits hard here. He should do this kind of stuff more often. His ex-con Crawford, locked in a simple room with Cannon’s pierced homeless recluse Paul, Clea DuVall’s polite Kerry and Shea Whigham’s twisted Tony, make for more fireworks than a Michael Bay flick with fifty times its budget.

Director Jonathan Liebesman pulls off a rare feat: Setting an entire film predominantly in one room. All focus is on the eyes, actions, and betrayals of these characters – and the finale comes out of left field, in the best way possible.

It’s “Cube” with better actors. “Reservoir Dogs” without the hipness. “Lifeboat” with a modern spin on war-time paranoia.

During one pivotal moment, one of the “Killing Room” guinea pigs claws himself to a small grate, where a glimpse of blue sky offers the promise of something better. Having sat through a few dissapointing films already here at Sundance, I’m grateful that this film has given me a peek at some blue sky.