A raging blizzard, a group of mysterious strangers hiding out in a remote location to escape the weather. No, it’s not the plot to Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, but debuting director Damien Power’s No Exit, a slick, compact thriller led by a brilliant lead performance by Havana Rose Liu. While this no-frills whodunnit could’ve kept the pot boiling a bit longer, it keeps you on the hook from start to finish with a couple of nice swerves and subtle character turns.
Liu, who was terrific in the fantastical revenge film Mayday just a year ago, plays Darby Thorne, a college kid who is racing through a deadly blizzard to get home to her ailing mother. There’s just a couple of problems with this scenario: Darby is a drug addict in a rehab facility that has her on strict lockdown. She’s used the “sick family member” trick before to escape so they aren’t havin’ it this time. But neither is Darby, she swipes a car and hits the road, only to be waylaid by the storm. She ends up in a roadside rest stop where she meets up with four strangers playing cards: the handsome Ash (Danny Ramirez), off-putting Lars (David Rysdahl), and couple Ed (Dennis Haysbert), an ex-Marine, and wife Sandi (Dale Dickey).
The premise is positively Hitchcockian, and if I’m honest, this is among my favorite types of films. Just throw a bunch of people into a room, the shadier the better, and let the sparks fly. Things are pretty cordial, however, until Darby steps outside and finds a kidnapped girl in a van. Somebody in that room is carrying a pretty big secret, and when they find out someone else knows it, things aren’t likely to stay quiet for long.
Based on the novel by Taylor Adams, adapted by Ant-Man writers Andrew Barrer and
Gabriel Ferrari, No Exit sort of shoots its load early. We don’t have to wait long to find out who the real danger is, but that’s when you figure out that this was never meant to be a mystery at all. It’s an exercise in consistently ratcheted-up tension, to the point where it strains credulity. But that’s all part of the fun. There are close-calls, wild coincidences, a couple of surprisingly brutal kills, and all held together by a nuanced portrayal by Liu.
There are only a handful of characters and other than Darby, they’re all pretty one-note. Red herrings all of them. But Darby is another story. Her history as a drug addict only makes this situation more fraught. We learned early on that she’s gone through rehab multiple times. Is she even capable of coming through this alive? Is she experiencing some kind of hysteria or paranoia fueled by her drug use? It all adds to the vulnerability that we sense in her, but also makes her resourcefulness and perseverence more remarkable. Liu depicts all of this with a modicum of dialogue, expressing herself mostly through body language and eyes. Liu delivers a breakout performance not unlike Samara Weaving in Ready or Not, delivering a whirl of emotions as intense as the frigid storm.
While clocking in at just over 90 minutes, No Exit, ironically, struggles to find an exit strategy. The final act grinds to a slowdown as revelations must be made, backstories revealed in flashback, and I think one final twist too many. But by then you’re already far enough in that one gratuitous twist is to be expected.
No Exit is available on Hulu now.