A quick tour of the internet has suggested to me that there are two kinds of viewers of The Belko Experiment: fans of screenwriter James Gunn who are outraged by how badly the film mangles his sense of humor and what an unpleasantly nasty slog the whole thing is, and fans of director Greg McLean, who came for the unpleasant nastiness and have found it to be just exactly right. I'm certainly more of a McLean fan than a Gunn fan, and sure enough, I'm thoroughly on board with the film's brutal cynicism, but I'll certainly concede the point. Gunn's script - which he was initially attached to direct, only to pull out during his 2008 divorce, allowing the project to lie fallow for the next seven years -  is obviously first and foremost a satire of the way that corporations treat their employees, and to be its best self, it wanted a director with a lightly sardonic hand, who could sell that satire with an appropriate wink underneath all of the violence and viciousness. Whatever strengths McLean has demonstrated in the four films he made prior to The Belko Experiment, a strong sense of humor doesn't count among them - oh, there's some pitch-black sarcasm in Wolf Creek, but it's scabbed-over and bitter. Certainly nothing like the morbid irony that The Belko Experiment wants.

Nonetheless, even the imperfect Belko Experiment we've been given is a pretty snazzy bit of spirited nastiness, and given the largely indifferent state of horror-thrillers in 2017 (I'm very reluctant to call the film "horror", but it's certainly one for the gorehounds), it stands out more than well enough. The film's hook is the latest incarnation of the "forced deathmatch" genre that has recently come to prominence thanks to The Hunger Games, though it is older (indeed, did we not just determine that The Belko Experiment was written at least in 2007?), and anyway, the film I found myself thinking of the most was the 2006 slasher film/office politics satire Severance. But the plot: one fine morning, the First World employees of the Belko Industries office outside of Bogotá, Colombia, arrive to find the local workers being kept outside the building by armed guards. Thinking only a little of it, 80 men and women shuffle into their cubbyholes, among them new hire Dany Wilkins (Melonie Diaz), who we meet just as she's being implanted with a computer chip that the Belko folk assure her is necessary in the event that she's kidnapped for ransom, as happens too often in that country.

As we'll learn just a short while later, the chips serve no purpose of the kind: in fact, this day is the day that the Belko higher-ups have decided to trap the 80 workers in the building, with every window and door slamming shut with thick steel plates. And immediately thereafter, a calm, no-nonsense voice (Gregg Henry) comes in over the loudspeakers to announce that the workers need to kill thirty of their own number within the next two hours, or sixty will be killed, exploded with those same little security chips. Cue desperation and panic as the Belkans split into two factions: routine worker drone Mike Milch (John Gallagher, Jr.) becomes the de facto leader of the group that would prefer to figure out some solution that doesn't involve becoming murderers, while COO Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn) rather too enthusiastically takes leadership of the group that wants to find some kind of vaguely objective way of deciding which thirty people are the best candidates to die, and execute them as unfussily as possible.

There are really two films in here. One, I've mentioned: the vigorously angry satire of corporate politics as a realm in which the battles to the death between employees are of a more figurative sort, but are no less miserable and desperate for it, and no less motivated by seemingly nothing but the caprice of corporate masters who self-evidently don't care about the well-being of their workers. And this is, in truth, not a particularly imaginative satire. Maybe a director like Gunn or someone else willing to lean into it could have helped; as it is, the social commentary is basically just there, announcing itself loudly without being much cunning or insightful. And even here, the screenplay hasn't figured out what setting the action in Colombia does: there's little or no sense that the exploitation of the global south by powerful multinational corporations is even a little bit on the movie's mind, and if that's not the point, I can't figure out what else it possibly might be.

The other, much more satisfying movie, scales back the intellectual game playing for pure gut-level intensity: if the satire is all about People Fighting People for Small Beneficence from the Evil Bosses, with all those capital letters, the better part of The Belko Experiment, the bloody-minded thriller, reduces everything to lowercase, and goes for simpler emotion. It becomes a bleak, brutal fable about the desperate drive to survive at any cost, even if it means having to stare down people you see every day, people you at least find comfortingly familiar and perhaps even like, and murder them with your bare hands. The director of the Wolf Creek movies, the first of them the only torture porn film I have seen that has something of a genuine moral perspective on the suffering it depicts (to my shame, I have still not seen the second EDITED: now I have, and it definitely doesn't follow in the first movie's footsteps here), is uniquely well-positioned to tell a story about the painful cost of perpetrating violence in these circumstances.

He's also uniquely well-positioned to make a sweaty thriller about surviving that violence, and if I'm being honest, that's really where The Belko Experiment is at its very, very best: putting a large cast, with some extremely solid performances bringing the characters to life (including John C. McGinley and Michael Rooker, among less-known but no less effective actors), inside a huge concrete and metal box, and watching them panic with an escalating level of terror that grows increasingly wearying to watch, in the good way that such things can be wearying. It's the best kind of low-budget genre film, one that builds tension almost entirely through the facial expressions of the actors and the claustrophobic scale of shots, and which mostly expresses its appalling violence through quick flashes and adroit editing that almost always puts the point of impact at the point of the cut, making the film itself a perpetrator of the violence it depicts (the film was cut by Julia Wong, and I rather suppose she deserves more of the credit for the throat-tightening build of the film than anybody).

As a purely affect-generating machine, The Belko Experiment is superb: watching it is distressing and upsetting not just because of its unpleasant content, but because of how that content is pressed against us. Not a fun time at the movies, exactly, but it visceral as all hell. My one big disappointment is how clearly it's stumbling as an intellectual argument; it honestly takes some doing for a film with this story to be as disinterested in really digging into corporate culture, and for that I have to register the film as at least a mild disappointment. Still, for those moments when you want to watching something effectively nihilistic - and to be sure, many of us never want that thing at all - it's a good 'un, and certainly a fine exercise for the director whose Wolf Creek remains one of the greatest artistically nihilistic films of the 21st Century.