Remember adult thrillers? Remember when major studios actually made them? James Mangold’s Identity at Columbia, Tarsem Singh’s The Cell at New Line Cinema, or even Nimrod Antal’s criminally underrated Vacancy at Screen Gems. It doesn’t really matter if films like this were good (the ones mentioned above absolutely are), but in the cold light of 2022, the existence of the R-rated thriller both being funded by and believed in by large studios and major movie stars feels almost as distant as the Technicolor musical. Without strategizing how one could turn a film into a franchise or how they could loop it into some universe, the idea of a tight, insular 90-minute thriller shouldn’t feel like a unicorn, but we have reached the point where they’re perhaps some of the rarer films to find these days. Ironically, with the Disney-fication of all media, it’s actually quite ironic that one of the few, and also one of the better, studio thrillers of the past decade, Damien Power’s No Exit finds itself at a Disney studio, streaming on a Disney streaming service. Irony can be sweet bliss at times.
Darby (Havana Rose Liu) is a recovering addict receiving treatment at a rehab center in Sacramento, who receives word that her estranged mother has suffered a massive aneurysm in Salt Lake City and is in critical condition. With both her family and treatment facility not wanting Darby to leave to visit her mother, she defies them anyway and sets forth towards Utah. Soon, in the middle of a severe snowstorm, she finds herself trapped at a rest stop in the Sierra Nevada mountains with a group of affable, if off-putting, strangers. While searching for a cell signal outside, Darby discovers a kidnapped child tied up in the back of one of the stranger’s van. Without an end to the snowstorm in sight, Darby finds herself trapped with people she cannot trust as she tries to decipher who amongst them owns the van.
No Exit feels like a film ripped straight from the marquee of a movie theater from 2006 and perhaps it’s that simplicity that works so well in this efficient little thriller’s favor. This is a deceptively simple movie, one that never tries to reinvent the wheel, but rather builds upon the efficiency of the many wheels that came before it. This is achieved by many factors beyond the simplicity of the project, not especially from its very game cast and crew who inject the film with a very engaging and atmospheric life.
Liu, in her first major leading role, is quite simply put, an absolute star. It’s often tough to come across major films of late that strike a good balance of making a protagonist both charming and flawed all at once. It feels as if audiences find it difficult to differentiate between the two, simply labeling complex characters as “difficult to root for” the second they have to reason with a character’s more frustrating traits. Darby is not always an easy character to understand, but the energy of Liu’s performance at the center of the story never once loses steam.
Also out to play are some very underrated character actors getting a much larger chance to shine in a film more demanding of their talents. All are good, but the one that warms my heart most is seeing Dale Dickey, owed many flowers for her work in small but memorable roles over the years (my favorite being her work with Debra Granik), finally getting a role that gives her the breathing room to inject a depth and complexity not often granted to her in smaller roles. Dicky and the reliably underrated Dennis Haysbert play married couple Sandi and Ed, providing this very cold film a warmth that is both comforting and unnerving all at once. Taking on qausi-parental roles to Darby, Dickey and Haysbert perfectly encapsulate a likable, if still untrustworthy, nature wonderfully as the film progresses and the lines between good and evil become thinner and thinner and there comes a frightening possibility of the warmth freezing over.
Filmmaker Damien Power, director of IFC Midnight’s Australian horror Killing Ground, takes a small, simple concept and brings forth a palpable, tense atmosphere that captures the best vibes of Agatha Christie, as well as the cold isolation of something like Dean Koontz’s Phantoms better than most actual films adapting said works. It constructs a tight, theatrical structure that, while technically could work on a stage, really shines as a testament to the claustrophobic nature that film can achieve with the right craftsman at the helm. It doesn’t break new ground by any means, but there is a real sense of effort and passion behind the camera, in the sets, in the editing, and also in Marco Beltrami & Miles Hankins’s wonderful score to the film.
No Exit, however, does play its cards rather early in the film, leaving much of the it feeling like the third act to the story, when rather we’re only getting started with it. Sure, more twists are revealed and the story still remains thrilling, but the pacing of it does sometimes make it feel like a Scream movie where you discover the identity of Ghostface halfway through, as opposed to the titular “third act bloodbath.” That doesn’t make any of the scenes after the big reveal any less engaging, but when the mystery is a lot of the fun, I do wish it had a bit more of that.
It’s easy to see a trailer for No Exit and think it doesn’t have much up its sleeve, and perhaps it isn’t the grand murder mystery that it might try to be in its marketing, but the very efficient simplicity of a film that starts, builds, and ends within 90 minutes with no pretense or expectation of a sequel, is surprisingly refreshing to watch. In adapting Taylor Adams’s 2017 novel, there are plenty of things about No Exit that could’ve been approached and executed lazily or too conventionally for its own good, but every element, from its dedicated cast, to its creative team, imbues the film with a lot more craft and alacrity than what is expected from the start. That makes a straightforward film, one that doesn’t try to upend the concept of the adult thriller, one that feels rarer by the day, worth so much more of your time than you would think from the surface.
Available on Hulu February 25th, 2022.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.