No Exit has the makings of a decent thriller: an intimate premise, a best-selling airport novel that serves as its source material, a producer who wrote Logan, arguably the best X-Men movie in 20 years, and The Little Cast That Could that has Dennis Haysbert and the always-great Dale Dickey. But for every Panic Room, there are a dozen thrillers that fall into the bargain bin of basic cable fodder. The aptly named No Exit, sadly, has no way out of that hole even with all the bells and whistles it has. The problem isn’t so much that No Exit is outright awful, it’s that it fails to bring all its good pieces together, rendering the film as cold as the corpses it leaves in its wake.
Darby is a recovering addict who spends her days in rehab full of regret and self-loathing. When Darby receives a call from her estranged family that her mom may be hours away from her deathbed, she breaks out of rehab to visit her mom one last time. In true Murphy’s Law fashion, the night she breaks out happens to be in the middle of a blizzard and she has no choice but to shack in an isolated rest stop for cover. It’s in this rest stop where she finds herself in an inescapable predicament with four strangers and a kidnapped child in a van.
Any exciting thriller would know to examine the pathos that comes with sobriety, addiction, and paranoia, themes that our protagonist Darby is faced with all throughout the film. To trap someone in crisis in a scenario as cruel as the plot of No Exit would be to bare their demons, exposing their true self in the process. But No Exit forgoes this when it punctures the raging tension all too soon with a reveal that’s all too dull, and a change in tone that’s all too trite. No quarter is given to the potentially fascinating exploration of Darby’s soul, which is a shame given how fantastic Havana Rose Liu is.
No Exit lives and dies by Liu’s electrifying turn as Darby. Like a seasoned pro, Liu layers Darby with palpable self-affliction and resolve. A mere gaze from Liu conveys a depth of pain that cuts through the film’s noise, cementing her as the film’s singular best asset. That she manages to be so watchable despite the script handicapping the rest of her abilities makes for a performance that may leave audiences wanting more. And No Exit’s mortal sin is not giving her more to do.
Precious character work is also not afforded to the rest of the cast as they too are hamstrung by the film’s insistence on being a by-the-book survival screamfest instead of a potent mystery thriller. The great Dennis Haysbert commands what little screen time he has playing cards and standing in a room but loses footing the moment No Exit decides to get rowdy. His addition to the cast adds legitimacy to the ensemble but does little to make the movie feel legitimate. It’s through no fault of his own that his casting was in vain; the script simply does not give Haysbert the space to do anything worthwhile despite being primed to do so.
Indie darling Dale Dickey cushions the film’s sharp edges with a tender performance in the film’s former half, only for that tenderness to turn coarse later on Dickey’s performance doesn’t come off as thankless as Haysbert’s but a recklessly jammed twist in the third act exposes the gaps in what could’ve been a more rounded character.
Newcomer David Rysdahl’s Lars is central to the film’s crux of claustrophobic unrest and he surprisingly lives up to the task. His very neurotic Lars quickly proves to be a great foil to Liu’s very twitchy Darby and their combined presence coalesces into a mass of unease. Underneath Lars’ ugliness and unpredictability, Rysdahl manages to give the character troubled humanity.
Lastly, there’s Danny Ramirez, who goes against the clean-cut babyface type fans got acquainted with in Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Ramirez sheds the ‘aww shucks’ charm of Joaquin Torres to reveal his inner Patrick Bateman. It’s a commendable attempt that ultimately doesn’t live up to the venom of the material because he’s simply too cute to look at.
With all that said, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a middling script that goes awry halfway is what holds ultimately all the film’s best players back. Screenwriters Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari are credited on the uber-delightful Ant-Man and the Wasp, and yet No Exit is sorely lacking the playful looseness of the Marvel blockbuster. Restraint and compactness are usual staples of a great thriller script but neither are native to No Exit’s screenplay. Without both touchstones, No Exit might as well embrace the range of its premise which it doesn’t.
The screenplay is at its best in moments of stillness, when the tension calmly simmers to raging levels of unease. It’s during these scenes that the ensemble is at their most gripping, delivering performances that prove why they’re The Little Cast That Could. The screenplay is at its worst when it shifts gears into a loud mess of a cookie-cutter survival story rife with highly questionable story beats. The film makes a big deal of a sudden twist that feels empty and adds nothing to the tension. Characters are heavily dumbed down for bargain-bin levels of suspense and shock. For example, all throughout the film, certain characters make use of a very accessible backdoor to enter the rest stop. But during the story’s boiling point, when the same characters are forcibly trapped outdoors with seemingly no way in the front door, they’ve somehow forgotten about the back door they frequently used prior.
Like the screenplay, No Exit‘s photography is two-sided. Given its limited scope, the set is essentially split into two locations: inside the rest stop and out in the parking lot. Inside the rest stop is where No Exit looks its worst. The set’s harsh lighting makes it seem like the cast is doing a one-act play instead of a film. Staging, blocking, and camera movement feel uninspired, unwieldy and ends up making the film’s tensest moments feel lifeless. Ironically, outside in the unforgiving cold is where the film visually comes alive. The snowy set’s authentic craftsmanship allows director Damien Power the space to be aesthetically playful, utilizing the icy atmosphere to stage and compose the film’s most striking images.
Fans of Taylor Adams‘ novel may find solace in the wanton violence No Exit dishes out to its cast of characters. The tonal shift the film takes halfway through comes with a few exciting brutal and bloody sequences that are almost bordering on comical B-movie schlock. The violent climax isn’t quite the second wind the movie so desperately needs nor does it live up to the novel’s extremities but it closes the movie with a playfulness it should have had from the beginning.