It’s a proven formula: put a group of people together, reveal one of them is a killer, and let the paranoia ensue. It’s the stuff of great whodunits, of Agatha Christie novels, and even of the “Scream” franchise. And now, the formula has once again proved trustworthy – if a little wobbly in its execution – for a new horror film.
There are many twists and turns (some good, some bad) in director Damien Power’s “No Exit,” a sometimes predictable, but often exhilarating thriller currently streaming on Hulu. Though anchored by a strong lead performance and a deliciously gory third act, the film leaves something to be desired in its execution, with its surprising lack of mystery and haphazard commentary on addiction. But despite its flaws, “No Exit” skillfully ramps up the madness to a feverish climax that will leave you buzzing.
On her way to see her mother in the hospital, recovering addict Darby (Havana Rose Liu) finds herself derailed by a furious blizzard, and is forced to spend the night at a rest stop with four strangers – married couple Ed (Dennis Haysbert) and Sandi (Dale Dickey), reclusive creep Lars (David Rysdahl), and charming Ash (Danny Ramirez). When Darby discovers an abducted child in the back of a van, a monotonous night waiting out the storm turns into something much more sinister as she tries to figure out who the van belongs to and stay alive in the process.
Despite its set-up, “No Exit” leaves the whodunit formula in the dust fairly early on. Darby discovers the kidnapped child, the villain (or villains? Who knows?) is revealed, and instead of allowing the audience to stew and theorize as the mystery unravels, we’re left to experience Darby’s growing terror as she tries to figure out what to do. The reveal not only saps the story of its mystery, but a bit of its energy too. With the mystery – which wasn’t that mysterious to begin with – solved in the first 35 minutes, the film’s tension starts to depend on the effectiveness of the actors and how well they play their respective roles, whether that be kidnapper, bystander, or accomplice. But the script doesn’t give them too much to work with. Veterans Dickey and Haysbert are best at settling into their archetypes, handling fairly cheesy dialogue with the proper amount of gusto, but Ramirez and Rysdahl are sometimes overpowered by the shockley script.
No, “No Exit” is less about the element of surprise, less about the deftness of its screenplay, and more about ramping up the stakes. The film’s third act represents a turning point, anchored on one of the film’s only shocking revelations and jam packed with grisly thrills. As the story itself becomes more unbelievable, the filmmaking and acting strangely seems to improve. More interesting shots grace the screen using light and color in engaging ways, and the actors come out of their shells, starting to chew scenery in a way a movie like this deserves. Liu especially gets her time to shine, showing glimpses of a budding Scream Queen underneath the surface. Even in the film’s less stimulating portions, she delivers as a young woman thrown into the deep end of a nightmare, her face poised in front of everyone else, only her eyes betraying the bewildered fear coursing through her. By the time we reach the final act, Liu’s released the tension in her face and body, delivering a physical performance that’s unyielding in its rage.
But again, for all of Liu’s strengths as a performer, the script doesn’t always lend her a helping hand, particularly in its lukewarm attempts to link Darby’s struggle with addiction into the larger narrative. Darby’s addiction is used as the central framing device for the film, but it feels shoehorned into the actual narrative, less of a struggle for Darby’s character to face and more of a convenient plot device. Throughout the film, Darby carries a small baggie of cocaine around with her, an ever-present reminder of what she’s fighting against – besides, you know, kidnappers and such. The baggie is all but forgotten for the majority of the film, until a climactic scene in which Darby snorts the cocaine in an attempt to ramp up her adrenaline. Liu is stellar in the sequence in question, on the brink of madness by this point, but the significance of her breaking her sobriety feels strangely unimportant. As an audience, we’ve forgotten about the baggie, and when it’s reintroduced, it feels as though Darby’s addiction has no greater meaning beyond giving the filmmakers this moment – Chekhov’s cocaine, if you will.
In the end, “No Exit” feels less akin to those whodunits of yore than one might initially expect, too unconcerned with mystery to languish in it for long. But as the film quickly morphs into something more akin to a slasher killfest, its gruesome delights are sure to thrill.