If you want to avoid a horror-movie situation, it’s probably best to stay away from isolated cabins in the dead of winter. Stephen King was certainly onto something when he set The Shining and Misery in snowed-in Colorado abodes. The strange, frigid silence of a snowstorm is the perfect backdrop for stories about isolation and hopelessness. That’s why director Damien Power was so drawn to No Exit, a novel by Taylor Adams, which also takes place during a blizzard in Colorado. In Power’s film adaptation of the book, which premieres February 25, 2022, on Hulu, Power makes the most of the snowy, isolated setting. He creates the ideal setup for the heroine, Darby (Havana Rose Liu), to undergo intense physical and psychological distress.
Darby, an apathetic woman in her 20s, is staying at an addiction recovery facility in Colorado when she gets a life-altering phone call about her mother. She frantically leaves the facility and heads off to be with her family in Salt Lake City, Utah, but she gets caught in a vicious snowstorm. Darby takes refuge in a small travel center, where she meets four strangers who were also caught in the blizzard. But one of them is hiding a dark secret. While enjoying some fresh air in the parking lot, Darby discovers a kidnapped child in one of the cars. With no foreseeable break in the storm and no cell service, Darby’s only hope is to try and figure out which stranger is the kidnapper.
The first act of No Exit is dedicated to building suspense. Damien Power sets the mood quickly and uses every opportunity to remind us that Darby is mentally, physically, and emotionally isolated — and he does so without slapping us in the face with expository dialogue. No Exit opens with a closeup shot of a landscape painting that hangs in the recovery facility. By itself, the painting might look inspiring and serene. But the frightful score brings out the chilling nature of the painting, making it feel as though the painting is haunted by a dark spirit that knows your deepest fears. Even though the first scene takes place entirely indoors, the eerie painting foreshadows the coming blizzard and the importance that it will play in the plot.
Then, we hear the faltering voice of a young woman as she talks about her struggles with addiction. The mood shifts slightly when the screen cuts to Darby, who is clearly unimpressed by her fellow addict’s sob story. Then, it’s Darby’s turn to share with the group. In a somewhat trite little speech, Darby makes her feelings about therapy and recovery known. Thankfully, before she can get too deep into her tirade about the meaninglessness of sobriety, she’s called away to take an emergency phone call. As the sarcastic skeptic of the facility, Darby clearly doesn’t get along with the others. We also soon learn that the strict rules of the recovery facility keep her isolated from the outside world, and she doesn’t get a lot of support from her family. As a complete loner who is used to relying on herself, Darby is the perfect candidate for the intense trials to come.
With a solid narrative introduction in place, No Exit sets the stage for a tense thriller with a strong lead character. But the movie doesn’t just rely on its plot and characters to set the tone. The production design, score, cinematography, and editing all work together to build suspense, making the first act of No Exit engaging and memorable. The camera isn’t just a passive observer watching the events unfold. It’s an active narrator that draws our attention to specific details and fills in the gaps between dialogue. Plus, the neutral color palette of the film sets a grim mood, as if the story is taking place in a haunted forest. No Exit also achieves the ideal balance between sound effects and score, breaking the silence at just the right times. The suspense reaches a peak when the stranded travelers play a deceptive card game while trying to get to know each other — a clever setup that gives Darby and the audience the chance to try and figure out which character is the kidnapper.
But time is of the essence in No Exit, both for Darby and for the story itself. With four new characters at play, there’s not as much time for nuanced cinematic storytelling. In a rush to introduce the four potential kidnappers and their possible motives, No Exit gives way to stiff, corny dialogue. It doesn’t help that the cast is slightly unbalanced, with some actors adding more depth to the dialogue than others. Still, there are enough twists and turns in the plot to keep things interesting.
No Exit takes a dramatic turn in its final act. It transforms from a suspenseful thriller into a self-indulgent celebration of violence. Of course, there’s a certain amount of violence to be expected in this kind of story. However, the disturbing nature of the final sequences leaves you wondering if there’s any symbolism to be found in the violence or if it’s just downright unnecessary. Damien Power and the rest of the creative team made deliberate choices about what weapons the characters would use, what angles would be shown, and how the violence would escalate. Unfortunately, not all of those choices work. There’s an art to transitioning from suspense to sudden and extreme violence (see Hereditary), but No Exit doesn’t quite pull it off.
For more information, check out the No Exit website.
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."