No Exit Review: A Taut Little Thriller That Overplays Its Hand

A mountain rest stop in a blizzard. A group of five strangers. A girl tied up in a van. It's a tantalizing premise for "No Exit," the chilly thriller directed by Damien Power, but then again, a premise can only take a movie so far.

Based on the 2017 novel of the same name by Taylor Adams, "No Exit" may immediately call to mind the Jean-Paul Sartre 1994 philosophical play with which it shares a name thanks to the very basic concept of a bunch of strangers being driven to the brink after being trapped together (which I don't think author Taylor Adams even meant to evoke in the first place), but the 2022 "No Exit" doesn't have such high-minded ambitions as that. It's straightforward and efficient and to the point, sometimes to its detriment. But as a taut little psychological thriller, it works.

Havana Rose Liu ("Mayday") stars as Darby, a recovering drug addict who escapes her rehab facility when she learns that her mother has been hospitalized. On the drive to the Salt Lake City hospital where her mother is being treated, Darby is caught in a vicious blizzard that forces her to take refuge at a mountain rest stop.

The rest stop is empty except for four other people: the skittish, greasy Lars (David Rysdahl); the handsome young Ash (Danny Ramirez); the kind but opaque Ed (Dennis Haysbert); and his wary, weathered wife Sandi (Dale Dickey). Hearing from Ed that he was able to get some phone service while outside, Darby ventures out into the parking lot to try her phone, but hears some faint screams coming from inside a van. Suddenly, a hand appears at a window, one belonging to a young girl with tape over her mouth and tape around her wrists. In a panic, Darby tries to free her but the doors are locked. She takes a picture of the license plate, but her phone still refuses to send messages. Finally, she promises the girl through the window that she'll free her and runs inside, only to suddenly stop in fear when she opens the doors. Who does the van belong to?

Hell is One Twist After Another

For the first 30 minutes or so, "No Exit" is pure white-knuckle tension, as Darby tries to suss out the nature and motives of her fellow rest-stop inmates. Her strategy unfolds over the course of — what else? — a card game, with Dennis breaking out a deck of cards and Lars nervously (and somewhat pointedly) suggesting they play "Bulls****." That's a pretty clear sign that "No Exit" doesn't have much time for subtext (how much more on the nose could you get?); it's playing it straight or not at all. And playing it straight means it plays its hand surprisingly quickly.

To avoid getting into spoilers, I won't divulge much more of how the plot unfolds, but an early-act reveal lets the air out of the film a little. What was a high-wire act of suspense and tension turns out to be lower to the ground than one thought, as the more obvious suspects incriminate themselves with alarming speed. To make up for that early-act reveal, "No Exit" throws several more twists at us, each with increasing violence and intensity. But it never brings us back to the heights of that first-act tension — the killer, closed-room "Who is the kidnapper?" premise. However, I can't fault writers Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari for quickly abandoning that initial high-tension situation — better movies than this have struggled with maintaining that kind of suspense over prolonged periods of time, and from what I gather, Barrer and Ferrari were following the same plot structure as Taylor Adams' book.

Director Damien Power more than picks up the slack, however, with a stylish direction that makes good use of the film's chilly setting. A lot of times, these kinds of one-location thrillers can feel very stagey, but Power avoids this by moving the action from room to room, from inside to outside, throwing new wrenches in Darby's plans as she scrambles to try to save the girl herself. And while most of the characters remain fairly archetypal, Power lends Darby some layers through the selective use of moody flashbacks, interwoven throughout the film, alongside Darby's brief moments of vulnerability in which she opens up about her drug addiction and estrangement from her family. They lend emotional heft to the movie as it ramps up the tension and the gore factor (for those expecting a fairly bloodless psychological thriller, be warned, it is very much not).

While competently performed — Liu in particular is exceptional, lending a fraught likability to Darby; Haysbert exudes a natural warmth; and Dickey gives a good frayed performance despite a disappointing characterization — and decently directed, it feels like there's something missing from "No Exit." That oomph, that wow factor that seemed to present itself so confidently with that initial premise of "five strangers, all suspects," just can't be regained no matter how many exceedingly violent twists the film throws at us. "No Exit" ends up underselling itself and overplaying its hand.

/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10