Two Thrillers from Sony
The Experiment (September 22/11)
Inspired by true events, The Experiment follows several characters, including Adrien Brody's Travis and Forest Whitaker's Barris, as they agree to participate in an experiment that will force them to act as prisoners and guards over a two-week period - with the seemingly simple exercise inevitably taking a turn for the brutal and sadistic. Filmmaker Paul Scheuring has infused The Experiment with an almost impressive lack of subtlety right from the get-go, with the hit-you-over-the-head vibe reflected in everything from the opening credits (featuring animals and insects attacking one another) to the various flashbacks (eg Whitaker's Barris is harangued by his domineering mother). The inherently compelling nature of the premise, coupled with the strong performances, ensures that it's easy enough to initially overlook the ridiculousness of Scheuring's screenplay, with the film's tenuous hold on the viewer eventually taking a sharp nosedive as the experiment enters its third or fourth day. Scheuring's reliance on elements of a decidedly over-the-top variety - eg Barris discovers that he has an erection following his first taste of power - slowly-but-surely transforms The Experiment into a laughably silly piece of work, with the underwhelming atmosphere compounded by the increasingly unbelievable nature of the characters' actions. (There is, for example, a scene in which the guards urinate on a prisoner, with this occurring just a few days into the enterprise.) The difficult-to-swallow trajectory of the storyline proves to be the least of The Experiment's problems, however, as there reaches a point at which the whole thing just becomes unreasonably unpleasant and cruel - although, by that same token, the last-minute inclusion of a few gratifying moments of revenge temporarily wins back the viewer's seriously dwindling interest. It's finally impossible not to wonder just what the point of all this is supposed to be, and it's worth noting that the movie ultimately fares just about as well as its 2001 German predecessor of the same name.
The River Murders (September 26/11)
The direct-to-video scene has been responsible for many, many underwhelming thrillers over the years, which is perhaps why The River Murders, though not great by any stretch of the imagination, comes off as a fairly watchable piece of work that generally manages to sustain the viewer's interest. The storyline follows Ray Liotta's grizzled Jack Verdon as he finds himself at the center of a serial-killer manhunt after his ex-girlfriends start popping up dead, with the film detailing the pursuit of Michael Rodrick's neck-snapping maniac and also Jack's ongoing dealings with a skeptical FBI agent (Christian Slater's Vukovitch). There's little doubt that The River Murders gets off to a rather disastrous start, as filmmaker Rich Cowan has infused the proceedings with precisely the sort of artificial and stilted feel that one has come to associate with movies of this ilk. The overly subdued atmosphere, which is compounded by Liotta's curiously sedate performance, persists right up until Slater's character enters the picture, with the actor's scenery-chewing work injecting the film with a much-needed jolt of energy that's heightened by the increased emphasis on the killer's exploits. It's ultimately the inclusion of a few amateurish, half-baked elements that prevents The River Murders from becoming more than just a passable thriller, however, with the most obvious example of this the eye-rollingly melodramatic bent of everything involving Jack's obnoxious wife (Gisele Fraga, in a performance that's almost comically bad). The end result is a disappointingly uneven endeavor that can't quite get the job done, which is a shame, really, given the strength of both the premise and the performances.