3 out of 5
Directed by: Damien Power
A solid, if mostly typical, thriller, No Exit starts well and finishes very well, but falls into a lot of typical genre pitfalls in a slower midsection.
Darby (Havana Rose Liu) is an aimless addict stuck in rehab, sniping at her fellow inmates as an outlet for the hopelessness she feels in her cycle of addiction and recovery. A call interrupts her current outburst: her mother has been hospitalized for a brain aneurysm. The staff are understanding, but rules are enforced – the person in charge has to approve further phone calls or other actions, and, y’know, it’s Friday night already, Darby, so wait until Monday? But that won’t do: Darby makes her escape that evening, through doors marked ‘No Exit,’ providing a really snazzy segue into the title card.
A car is procured, and a snowstorm beings during Darby’s drive to the hospital. Calls and texts make something clear: her sister, Devon, does not want Darby there – the tone indicates family history has not cast Darby in a favorable light. Pulling over to consider this information, the storm worsens, and thoughts of relapse lure… interrupted by an approaching cop car, informing Darby that the roads are closing down, and she needs to head over to a nearby visitors center to wait it out.
She does so, with the storm gaining more fury. Soon enough, she’s essentially locked down – with no cell service, natch – in the visitors center, waylaid by snow, with an older couple (Dennis Haysbert, Dale Dickey), one frazzed-out looking dude (David Rysdahl), and one less frazzed-out, more friendly dude (Danny Ramirez). Also: while out in the parking lot, searching for a cell signal, Darby discovers one of the cars, a van, has a young girl tied up and locked in the back.
This is all really fantastic stuff. Director Damien Power uses a very controlled sense of framing that keeps us locked in to Darby’s journey from the hospital to here, with Simon Raby’s chilly photography maintaining the atmospherics. And while the locked-room scenario that’s being set up isn’t new, the way we get here is compelling, and the details are communicated intelligently, and logically – Darby doesn’t automatically assume the frazzed out dude as the culprit, and instead tries to piece together some details that might help her make the ID. All of the performances feel a bit hemmed in – these are actors portraying what’s on the page, not so much fleshed out characters beyond the page – but that works well enough for this kind of drama / thriller.
…But then we have to stretch this out for another 60 or 70 minutes, so let the logic gaps and hackneyed dialogue happen. It’s not overly offensive, just unfortunate – some of the script feels right out of some kind of template for this kind of stuff – and this is where the one-dimensional characters fail us a bit, as it’s hard to remain engaged when there’s nothing else to fall back on except for moderately silly ante-ups to keep things going. Smarter repartee, or slightly more thought out dynamics would’ve easily sharpened this section; as presented, it’s competent stuff, and certainly watchable, but also of the kind of fiddle-with-your-phone-while-watching quality that doesn’t require full attention, whereas the introductory sequences more naturally gained it.
However, the endgame proves to be worth the wait, increasing the stakes impressively, and returning more to that sense of control with which the movie started. The twists in this section – spoiler that they exist, but twists are part of this formula – are maybe not completely unpredictable, but are equally well done, woven into the story effectively.
It’s solid. Movies like No Exit are what please me about streaming services nowadays – it’s nice having prestige stuff, but late night cable-quality movies, or the kind of stuff that was also-rans at theaters, fills a certain niche need, and this movie is a positive example of that.