A winter storm strands a group of strangers at a deserted road stop in this exciting new thriller…
There’s no feeling quite like being surprised by a film that you initially pegged as predictable. That’s very much the case for No Exit, the new thriller from director Damien Power (Killing Ground) which begins with a familiar set-up and then continues to surprise throughout its run time.
The screenplay by Andrew Barrer & Gabriel Ferrari (Ant-Man and the Wasp) follows Darby (Havana Rose Liu), a young woman in Narcotics Anonymous. Darby has been here before (she clarifies during group that she’s only there to avoid jail time) and she doesn’t trust the process. When she gets a call from her sister Devon informing her that their mother is in the hospital and may die, Darby uses this as an excuse to immediately bail, rushing head first into a severe winter storm.
It is revealed early on that Darby is not above scheming and lying, which immediately establishes her as (at minimum) a rebel and (at most) a troublemaker. No Exit uses this ambiguity to its advantage because Darby is a wild card; she’ll do whatever it takes to accomplish her goals – whether that’s escaping from NA or rescuing an abducted child hidden in the back of a van.
The latter development occurs shortly after Darby is directed to a road stop by a police officer when the storm renders the road impassable. After a quick introduction to the group of four strangers – cutie Ash (Danny Ramirez, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier), shady loner Lars (David Rysdahl, Nine Days), and couple Sandi (Dale Dickey, Winter’s Bone) and Ed (Dennis Haysbert, 24) – Darby discovers that whoever owns the van in the parking lot has imprisoned a young girl Jay (Mila Harris) inside.
For most films, this would be enough plot to justify the run time. In No Exit, however, deciphering the identity of the child abductor is only the beginning of the surprises to come. Each time the film, adapted from Taylor Adams’ 2017 novel of the same name, appear to be settling into familiar territory, a new wrinkle is introduced. This means the stakes keep getting raised as the dynamics of the group change.
Anchoring the whole thing, in her feature film debut, is Liu. It’s a tricky role because Darby is so guarded and slow to trust; qualities that are exacerbated first by her need to keep her private life secret (she is, after all, a fugitive) and later when she realizes someone in the group is lying. Liu is really excellent at balancing the seemingly contradictory aspects of the character: Darby is both prickly and empathetic; she’s strong, resilient and intelligent, but still fallible and prone to making bad decisions.
Since this is the equivalent of a single location mystery, the rest of the small cast is just as vital. Genre staples Dickey and Haysbert infuse their characters with warmth and parental concern, while Ramirez’s Ash quickly establishes an easy-going, flirty vibe with Darby that’s easy to root for. Rysdahl has arguably the least developed role (Lars is a bit one-note), but his stand-offishness is crucial to advancing the plot at multiple points. This includes an early card game of Asshole that fleshes out characters’ backstories and effectively builds tension at the same time.
Aside from the twists and turns, the other area where No Exit shines is in its tension and violence. As the night unfolds, the isolated location becomes a powder keg of violence and when blood is shed, it is surprisingly brutal and mean. What begins as a relatively simple mystery of “who abducted the little girl” quickly descends into chaos in a way that is incredibly satisfying.
The Bottom Line: Anchored by a fantastic lead performance by Liu, No Exit is proof that with tight scripting, confident direction, and good character work, a simple premise can go a long way. This is a surprisingly mean and gory thriller and it’s a big recommend. 4/5
No Exit is now available on Hulu (in the US) and Disney+ (in Canada)