The thriller is a mold that’s well worn, but not necessarily always tried and true. Some miss the mark, not being able to deliver an unpredictable and suspenseful experience. Damien Power’s No Exit may not seem unique when reading its synopsis, but it’s one of the best thrillers in a long time that focuses keenly on making sure its audience will never see what’s coming.
Based on the novel of the same name by Taylor Adams, the film begins at a rehab center where Darby (Havana Rose Liu) is staying. Eleven days sober doesn’t seem like much to celebrate, but it is for someone who possesses disbelief that the system built to help addicts like her doesn’t work. She makes it clear she doesn’t want to be there, creating tension during her support group meetings, but she has nowhere else to go. When she learns that her mother suffered a brain aneurysm, her sister doesn’t even want to bail Darby out so she can be with their mother in the hospital. Despite the strained relationship with her family that her addiction has caused, she’s worried about her mother. It’s also clear that she’s building a strained one in the facility, too. So, she does the only thing she can think to do when no one wants to help: She breaks out.
Marco Beltrami and Miles Hankins’ sweeping score captures a sense of dread as Darby drives to the hospital in a stolen car. It’s the opposite of a sense of urgency that would normally be felt in such a situation, but it signals her rotten luck to come. As a snowstorm blankets the area, causing road closures, Darby finds herself stranded. A policeman directs her to a visitors center to wait it out. When she arrives, as a viewer, you immediately make assumptions as to who is trustworthy and who isn’t. But as she suspiciously eyes everyone, appearances may be more of a facade. The apprehensive demeanor and air of untrustworthiness that Liu carries, in a star-making performance, inches the audience closer to the edge of their seat, and you can’t help but wonder what dire situation she’ll find herself in at this rest stop.
As she attempts to find cell reception outside, she hears a scream and a trace of a hand on cold glass – a kidnapped child is tied up in the back of a van. The pace of the score quickens, a sense of urgency is clearly felt this time, as she tries to figure out who the kidnapper is and how to save this girl. She tries to weed out the suspect by getting to know them over a game of cards. There’s the older couple, nurse Sandi (Dale Dickey) and ex-military Ed (Dennis Haysbert), who, that’s to Dickey and Haysbert’s performances, give off nothing but protective and welcoming vibes. There’s the kind and handsome Ash (Danny Ramirez) who was probably the jock and prom king in school, but Ramirez projects a mysterious side to the character. Finally, there’s Lars (David Rysdahl) as your stereotypical, slimy suspicious guy with Rysdahl capturing his compulsive anger and twitchy mannerisms.
Writers Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari craft the images of each character so well that it seems easy to predict how the narrative will unfold, but there’s twist after twist after twist. The target eventually gets placed on Darby’s back as the kidnapper gets wind that she’s on to them and a stand-off ensues. Beltrami and Hankins ramp up the score high on the suspense scale, while Simon Raby’s cinematography captures how much more frightening a chase through a dark snowstorm is. The lighting is almost too dark to discern what’s going on at those moments, but it makes Raby’s capturing of blood on crisp white snow much more arresting.
As said, while No Exit presents a scenario that’s been seen many times in film and TV, it excels at crafting mystery. There’s never a moment where it’s predictable. Just when you seem to have a hold on the who and why something else happens that warrants an expression of disbelief. Not only that, it ties up Darby’s story well, not leaving any loose end hanging. Nothing beats an engaging and tense thriller with ample violence and moments that make you squirm – No Exit has all of that.
Movie Score: 4/5