this movie outright tells you at the beginning it's based on the mk ultra experiments. as far as i know, there wasn't an experiment EXACTLY like this. but, then the movie does not pretend to cover the original projects, but perhaps an mk ultra III or mk ultra IV (mk ultra II is probably done by now... technically). although we have evidence to support mk ultra II, as far as i know, no one knows anything for sure after that. but, that's the basis from which this movie is drawn. if you know anything about some of these so-called "experiments" human rights take a poor second to achieving whatever goal the "experimenters" are after. but, EVEN KNOWING THAT, some of the events of the movie are quite surprising.
the movie begins with emily reilly (chloe sevingy) going to a job interview in a non-descript building like you might see in any industrial park in the u.s. she's carrying with her a report of facial expressions in regard to lying.
a personal aside, they did some of this at my college and i saw the videos from it. what they did there, was no big deal really... just people lying in front of the camera. well, that's all i know about it anyway. i didn't know any of the participants. even though i had a psychology minor and took several electives in psychology (mostly social, industrial, and behavior modification), this sort of thing was restricted to people who were much more involved in the department than i was. so, i knew a little bit of what ms. reilly would be saying... at first.
so, ms. reilly is greeted by dr. phillips (peter stomare). she tells him she admires his worth and begins talking about some experiment that sounds a little like some real experiments (maybe the stanford prison experiment which, i believe, was zimbardo in real life). of course, this experiment took place in the 1970s, but it is most likely still studied today. (this experiment is famous, but here goes: a fake prison was created and students were divided in between guards and inmates... the experiment had to be ended early because the students took their roles all too seriously. i think it was only scheduled to run a week, maybe two. looking back on it, there may have been more to that experiment than was stated when i studied it for it to run amok so quickly.) all this is irrelevent to the movie except to establish this dr. phillips is someone ms. reilly (i honestly can't remember if she's a ph.D. or just has a master's degree) respects academically.
they chitchat about ms. reilly's lying study and dr. phillips asks her if she can tell if people are lying to her. she says she can. he says, "my name is not dr. phillips." we don't get a verdict from emily, but i think it's safe to say he is telling the truth. that being said, i believe he is the person known as dr. phillips, but that is not his true identity. i don't know what emily thought at this point... she doesn't leave at any rate.
the interview is pretty brief. a lot of it consists of him emphasizing to her that everything must be held in strictest confidence. she signs papers agreeing to this. then he tells her about a tape that he wants her to watch. he doesn't tell her what's ON it exactly. but, he makes it perfectly clear that "this tape does not exist." soon after she begins watching the tape she asks him when it was made. he does not need to answser this question.
the tape shows some volunteers arriving for a study. they arrive one at a time after some sort of processing by a woman dressed in a manner that would suggest a nurse. they are escorted into a plain white room and they have very long surveys they've been told to complete.
the first person to arrive is a friendly young woman named kerry isalano (clea duvall). she takes a seat at the long table in the room. at the chair futherest from the door (but not the chair at the end) with her back to the door. everyone who enters the room after this takes their seat relative to where she is seated. a voice on the tape tells emily that kerry is married and has no criminal record.
she is joined by tony mazzolla (shea whigham) who takes a seat at the opposite end of the table, facing the door. when kerry asks the nurse for a new pencil because she broke hers, he at first thinks she's addressing him. tony then uses his cell phone to call and leave a message for his girlfriend that he'll be home late.
then crawford haines (timothy hutton) strides confidently into the room. he takes a seat across from tony. both kerry and tony know that crawford has done studies before. while kerry puzzles over questions, crawford quickly checks them off (the questions on this survey are crazy such as "which would you cancel: christmas, easter, 4th of july" and "in a shipwreck who would you save: yourself, them, no one"... we see crawford fill in the box saying he'd save himself). crawford, born in 1965, is the oldest participant and the only one with a criminal record.
emily pipes up to dr. phillips that crawford's ease with the situation is a "sign of contempt" and that's not good for intergroup relationships. he tells her that's not what they're trying to find out with this experiment.
the fourth and final study "volunteer" paul brodie (nick cannon) enters the room. he doesn't sit at the table. he sits in a chair that's off to itself. unlike nick cannon IRL who seems pretty healthy and confident, paul is scrawny and shy. kerry waves at him, but he doesn't join the group at the table until later.
each male subject that enters the room discovers that his chair is firmly bolted to the floor. all of them are made uneasy by this although tony and paul show it more than crawford. kerry just slid into her seat although she does notice this when paul enters because where he's seated she can see his feet.
after giving the subjects a while to stew, dr. phillips enters the room. he acts very friendly as he passes out their consent forms saying don't blame him for the extra paperwork, it's not his idea. he tells them the experiment pays $250 for the day. he says it's an 8-hour experiment and people will be eliminated along the way, but that will not affect their compensation. he tells them that experiment will be in four phases and phase one began when he entered the room. since he seems friendly and the experiment pays well, the subjects sign their forms. he asks them to put a contact number at the top. when paul asks, "what if we don't have one?" the doctor clamps him on the shoulder and tells him to just leave it blank. then he has them take their personal possession (contents of pockets, cell phones.. everything but clothing) take up and placed in large envelope. crawford says this has never happened before and dr. phillips promises him that he will get it back.
after all of these things are taken care of, dr. phillips takes kerry's face in his hands and asks, "what's your name, darling?" kerry, ever friendly, smiles and gives her name. he quickly pulls out out a pistol and shoots her then whisks out of the room. not only are the people in the room shocked beyond belief, so is emily. but, she quickly hides her reaction even as she sees tony trying to deny what he just saw to say it's just a joke to put on youtube. (i don't consider kerry's death a spoiler since she's shown dead in promotional artwork.)
as tony accepts reality, paul discovers there are a lot of names as well as other writing on the wall. having nothing else to use, tony uses kerry's blood in order to make some of these things readable. around this time, a gun is introduced to the participants. because he was huddled by the door, paul winds up with the gun. as if this was not enough to contend with they hear noises... people talking and praying in arabic as well as some elevator music.
then, the men get a question which they will have two hours to answer: from 1-33, which number do american choose most often. they decide they will all chose 7 (tony's answser). when they're officially asked, paul deviates from the plan and gives 17 as his answer. crawford answers last and, glaring at paul, yells "seven!" then they are put to sleep with gas and removed from the room by medical personnel.
to her credit, emily figures out an acceptable way of asking "why the fuck are you doing this shit?" dr. phillips starts telling her that "the mk projects" were never really under the control of the government. after 9/11, he says, they were given a free reign. they have come up with a fucked up plan he calls mk patriot. they are in the selection process at this stage. given this new information, emily discerns what they may be going for and tells him she thinks there's an easier way. he replies that everything in the room has been very, very carefully developed. he brags that adding the names and messages to the wall has sped things up considerably.
emily finally gives vent to her feelings as she cries in the stall in the ladies' room. she's not just crying for the people in the experiment. she's crying for herself... it takes very little to imagine that if she were to not pass the interview, she will be killed herself. even though, unlike the people in the experiment who were brought in a van, she drove her own car... there are locked doors between herself and that car.
dr. phillips tells her the tape she was watching took place that morning and that the men who were gassed have been out about three hours. to her horror, the medical personnel bring the unconsious men back into the room and carefully place them on the floor. dr. phillips gives her a white coat and a gas mask.
just before they leave, they shoot tony. so, when paul and crawford come to they find this fresh horror. then paul realizes their blood has been taken.