The Belko Experiment. 2016. Directed by Greg McLean. Screenplay by James Gunn.
Starring John Gallagher, Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Owaine Yeoman, Sean Gunn, Brent Sexton, Josh Brener, David Dastmalchian, David Del Rio, Gregg Henry, Michael Rooker, Rusty Schwimmer, & Gail Bean.
Orion Pictures / Troll Court Entertainment / The Safran Company
Rated R / 89 minutes
Horror / Thriller
★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Greg McLean is no stranger to national horrors, after all he gifted us Wolf Creek and its sequel, along with the TV series. He’s created an international piece of terror with The Belko Experiment, a film that pulls no punches. James Gunn’s screenplay takes the mundane, banal horror of working class life and turns it up to 11, literally turning an office into workplace hell. What’s so great about The Belko Experiment—apart from its striking violence and excellent mean streak—is how it looks at office and class politics through a lens of violence, depicting the brutal history of class struggle in a single, scary workday.
Mike Milch (John Gallagher) and Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn) work for Belko Industries in a rural part of Bogotá, Colombia, both arriving to a strange day at work. There are strange security guards who won’t allow the local Colombian staff inside. Stranger still is how the day goes for Dany Wilkins (Melonie Diaz), a new employee who’s told tracking devices are implanted in every Belko employee’s skull in case they’re kidnapped, an unfortunate side effect of kidnappings in Colombia. Except the devices have nothing to do with kidnappings, and everything to do with Belko Industries conducting a sick experiment using their American employees.
In The Belko Experiment, the dreaded rat race becomes a genuine competition in which lives are at stake. While the workplace is never far from competition of some kind it’s still meant to be a safe place, where there exist friendly faces, where you’re meant to trust the people around you as you all work together. Gunn’s screenplay subverts that concept of safety in the workplace and creates an intense space of terror to represent the brutal, bloody processes of capitalism and how they affect the lives of individuals in the working class.
A couple images throughout the film related to the working class come to mind as particularly important. What we witness is a bourgeois government operation hunting the working class like animals, thus there are two moments when animal imagery emerges. The simpler one is when Mike talks about how Belko’s treated them “like hamsters on a fucking treadmill.” The best image is earlier, when we see an ant farm, and one of the ants escape. The ant farm alone is perfect symbolism for the working class, but the escaping ant is even better, due to the fact all the employees at Belko are sealed like ants in a tank with no possibility of escape—the one ant who does make it out, as we see at the very end of the film, is merely escaping into another bigger farm; there’s always another larger economic system enclosing us, waiting to trap us.
What’s most obvious about how the working class are affected by capitalism in the film is how they’re seen as expendable. The Belko Experiment illustrates how the proletariat encompasses many, even the slightly higher-up folks past the typical desk jobs, like Barry, and we also see how Belko Industries pits the entire proletariat against each other. One early troublesome moment depicting the big divide between the working class is when the two maintenance workers, Lonny (David Dastmalchian) and Bud (Michael Rooker), have an altercation, then Lonny suddenly caves Bud’s head in, as the whole workplace devolves into further terror. If these two ultra-working class men turn on each other there’s little hope for the office drones, such as Mike, versus the executives, like Barry. Eventually Mike has to tell his fellow desk jockeys that Barry and a few of the others are “working against” them, not long before the real blood starts to flow.McLean’s film questions us: at what point do you abandon your morality to save yourself? Or, do you ever abandon it? Does abandonment of morality under any/all circumstances mean you’re devoid of morals in the first place, or are their moral caveats? At one point, Mike says that the “circumstances do not alter what is right and what is wrong,” which feels like a quote straight out of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy about categorical imperatives and morality.
Some of the scariest stuff in The Belko Experiment is Wendell (John C. McGinley) lusting after Leandra (Adria Arjona). Wendell’s talk of “mixed messages” is typical toxic masculine behaviour, showing that he’s a man incapable of listening to a woman’s actual words and instead chooses to interpret her actions how he wishes. Thankfully it doesn’t get any scarier because the immediate worry, once the murdering beings, is Wendell might use the whole situation as an opportunity to attack Leandra. Gunn does smart work by having Leandra actually kill Wendell later in the film, before the creep can pursue any further sexual harassment, or worse.
Perhaps the most troubling of all the moral quandaries is when Barry brings up the idea of people with spouses and children being more important, suggesting that they have to murder their work friends because their families are depending on them, meaning that people without families are, once again, even more expendable than the rest of the proletariat. This is also a fascinating, if not disturbing, indicator of the heteronormativity ingrained into capitalism and the workplace: if you have a wife and kids, your life is of value, if you’re childless (perhaps queer, like myself) then you and your life are of far less value, so why not just die?
The entire scene where Barry and his cronies have all the employees line up, dividing them all into groups, like people without kids and senior citizens, is an eerily prescient cinematic moment that could’ve predicted how Western society would react to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s only a year ago that conservatives and right-wing maniacs were talking about sacrificing the elderly in order to give the economy a blood sacrifice to keep it going. Barry Norris would feel right at home during the current pandemic.
There are a few darkly comedic moments to break up the tension, otherwise The Belko Experiment is a never ending festival of tension and visceral horror, rarely breaking to give us a moment to breathe. Gunn’s screenplay doesn’t stop brutalising us, though it’s also incredibly smart. He could’ve easily left all the murder to Belko’s security guards, or had automated killing machines roll through the building, hunting everybody down to the last drop of blood. Instead he crafted a story of decidedly human horror, all about how a capitalist system is, essentially, just a big massacre. Those of us in the working class spend our lives working, right up until the hour of our death, while those above us do nothing but try to kill us and con us into believing they’re doing us a favour while they do it.