“Hell is other people!” – Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit (Huis Clos). Sartre’s quote from his intensely existential play is, of course, not meant to be taken literally, or at face value. The quote heightens the existential absurdity of the concept of hell — no fire or brimstone or demon executioner awaiting your soul — but a room comprising of two other strangers, people, with whom the protagonist finds themselves trapped in a deadlock. Damien Power’s Hulu thriller, No Exit, echoes this Sartrean premise wherein a group of people find themselves trapped in a location, but lacks any of the play’s deep, layered themes (although, to be fair, it is doubtful that Power even intended to evoke that comparison in the first place). Based on the eponymous novel by Taylor Adams, No Exit is equal parts tense and gratifying, managing to subvert expectations for the most part, but unfortunately, the clumsy unravelling of the third act mars what could have been a lean, taut action-thriller.
Darby (Havana Rose Liu) is a twenty-something recovering addict named Darby, who seems to be disillusioned by the inefficacy of the rehab system and the long, arduous battle she continues to fight with addiction. During one of her support meetings, she receives a call informing her that her mother is in the hospital, having suffered a brain aneurysm. Darby gets in touch with her sister Devon, begging her to come to get her so that she can be there for her mother — however, she is only met with the kind of exasperated disdain that recovering addicts often have to face, as she is told that she is unwanted by her family and “no one has time for [her] bull****”. Determined to make it to the hospital. Darby breaks out of the facility at night, only to be bogged down by an unforgiving snowstorm, which forces her to head to a visitor’s centre, where she is stuck with four other people.
Things take a murkier turn after Darby heads outside to find cell service, only to discover a bound-and-gagged child inside a locked van, with a Nevada numberplate. Anxious and on-edge, Darby has no choice but to head back inside and figure out who the potential kidnapper is, as she has no idea who to trust. Among the contenders are Ed (Dennis Haysbert), an ex-Marine, his wife Sandi (Dale Dickey), the seemingly-friendly Ash (Danny Ramirez), and the always-on-edge Lars (David Rysdahl). No Exit is able to expertly stack up on tense sequences, be it in the form of a charged game of Bull**** (a card game) that the five people play (which works both as an icebreaker and a deeper glimpse into everyone’s psyche), or the scenes in which Darby attempts to get inside the van and help the child, Jay (Mila Harris), who also seems to be sick, apart from being terrified.
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However, the reason why No Exit does not quite work or essentially undoes its achievements is the way in which the reveals are set up. Yes, there are twists that might subvert expectations — however, as there are only four people to work with in terms of who the perpetrator(s) might be, the options become aggressively limited and some reveals fail to work in some respects. The reason why hardcore thriller/slasher audiences would even care to put up with the rest of No Exit is due to Liu’s expressive, grounding performance, along with the intricate way in which her character is granted depth, which shines through in the tensest of scenarios. Darby’s fraught relations with her family, her addiction, and her overwhelming need to make sure Jay is okay add to who she is as a character, and these additions do not seem contrived in any shape or form. However, it is the other characters that fall short — both in terms of characterization and delivery — as their presence, motivations, and actions seem inconsistent or wholly unconvincing in some parts, doing the atmosphere the film managed to build within the first 45 minutes or so.
No Exit, is by no means, a revelation: but it is a straight-cut, lean mystery thriller that has its moments of glory. However, the thriller overstays its welcome, and absolutely butchers any semblance of immersion with the third act. Forcefully injecting an ineffective flashback to set up a major reveal is never a good idea, and it hurts the film the most, robbing the characters of their agency at the moment. There is an attempt by Power to ramp up the thriller to a frenetic finish with the aid of some gore-heavy scenes (mild, although it depends on the viewer’s tastes, and these sensibilities vary), that, while objectively enjoyable, do not do the film any major favours. However, if you wish to spend the weekend immersing yourself in a snow-bound world, in which everyone is a potential suspect and alliances are ever-changing, where the only semblance of hope is a girl bogged by her own demons, No Exit is worth the watch.