There’s something to be said for thrillers that know better than to overly complicate things for viewers. Sometimes all you need is a terrific premise, strong performances, and smart execution — no bells, no whistles, no flashy beats — and that’s exactly what we get with the new suspense thriller, No Exit.
Darby (Havana Rose Liu) is bored and irritated in rehab. It’s far from her first stay at such an establishment, and the monotony is only interrupted by a phone call letting her know that her estranged mother has suffered an aneurysm. Her sister tells her to stay away, but Darby ignores the request, breaks out of rehab, steals a car, and races towards the hospital. A fierce winter storm is ahead of her, though, forcing her to pull off the highway temporarily at a remote rest stop along with four others. Briefly tempted to jump off the wagon, she finds a different kind of high when she discovers a young girl bound and gagged in the back of a locked van. With no cell service due to the raging storm, Darby’s only shot at helping the girl comes down to identifying which of the four strangers is her abductor.
Some minor surprises land in the film’s back half, but No Exit exists as a simple, fast-moving thriller that never tries to do too much. The script by Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari, and Scott Frank adapts Taylor Adams‘ novel with a smartly efficient eye towards pacing and plotting. We meet our hero, we’re introduced to a highly effective “what would you do?” scenario, and we’re off to the races. The stakes are immediately clear, and director Damien Power milks the setup for all its worth as Darby and viewers alike try to figure out who to trust and what to do.
Two of the film’s biggest strengths are Liu’s performance and the character of Darby herself. Darby is short-tempered and unfriendly when we first meet her, but she’s no fool — a text message arrives while she’s driving, and while most films would let this lead to a near accident, Darby actually pulls the car over to read the text. Dear reader, I gasped. After struggling to access the van, she also takes a picture of the license plate and texts 911 with the details. Her dilemma is an engrossing one as tipping her hand too soon might get everyone killed but waiting too long might cost the girl her life.
Liu does great work creating a tough cookie of a character whose outer shell is is intentionally off-putting and meant to hide the emotions bubbling just beneath the surface. She lets the character grow with viewers which makes her all the more cheer-worthy later on, and her journey towards being open to help from others is a compelling one.
The supporting players are equally strong including — Dale Dickey and Dennis Haysbert are a comfortable couple, David Rysdahl is a weirdo, and Danny Ramirez is a cool dude aching to be Darby’s hero. Each manages to create a well-rounded character and an ideal ensemble for a possible suspect pool. No Exit works to direct viewer suspicion towards one in particular, but it doesn’t hurt the film in the slightest. Even viewers who think they’re ahead of the game are kept on their toes as Darby’s attempts at investigation and rescue the girl hit some unexpected obstacles.
Power’s previous film, Killing Ground, is as intense and cruel (my full review) as they come, but while No Exit is suspenseful in more traditional ways there are still a couple mean little beats here. The whole film moves at a solid pace, but the third act is where things start moving faster than the wind can blow. Power takes great advantage of the single location moving viewers in and around the rest stop, from safety to danger to the tenuous middleground in between, and the tension rides up and down and up again with it.
No Exit isn’t flashy and lacks a high concept hook, but what it has is more than enough. A terrific premise is buoyed by a charismatic lead performance and smart execution leaving viewers with tense ride on a winter night. If anything, the film could have run a bit longer than its ninety-five-minute length to give its characters even more room to breathe, but it’s far from a deal breaker.
No Exit premieres on Hulu starting February 25th.