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REVIEW – “No Exit”: Escape Virtually Impossible in Suspense Thriller Blizzard

Havana Rose Liu as Darby in 20th Century Studios’ NO EXIT, exclusively on Hulu. Photo by Kirsty Griffin. ©2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Winter is not quite done with us, at least here in the Pacific Northwest. We may have our calmer, spring-like days, but then we’re grounded down a little by the throes of reality. Cold, bitter, often with a swirl of light snow. The timing, therefore, appears on point, for one last blast to hit cinematically. No Exit will no doubt tickle that corner of the brain in the mood for a small, intense thriller involving the elements and a few lost souls stranded around them. At least on paper, as so much of this oddball venture, while playing out, very little happens that’s worth noting about, with the souls rather uninteresting or disinterested. Perhaps a duality merging the two.

Director Damien Power (Killing Ground) places his group of randomly generic characters in the middle of a hefty snowstorm, where deception and desperation blossom. For college student Darby (Havana Rose Liu), it’s a concentration on the former. She’s working thru a 12-step program at a rehab clinic when word breaks out of her mother undergoing emergency surgery in a Utah hospital. Despite their strict protocols, no phone, no option for visitation, and no approval from her distanced sister, her fractured mind is made up. She proceeds on the road trip, but is stopped by state troopers with snow intensifying on isolated mountain roads, and deferred to a nearby visitor’s center, to patiently wait out conditions, then promptly go mad with a cover-up, and the hellish guilt in play.

We may not be witnessing a direct parallel to, say, Sartre’s vision of a literal hell. This spin, inspired by a hot-selling 2017 Taylor Adams novel, does take the base idea and pits it below freezing. Darby’s plight could be Inez all over again, having encountered a history of addiction and manipulation. The parallels cease there, while she inadvertently encounters a young kidnapped woman bound to tape and twist ties in the back of a van. The other four captives waiting out the storm could all be suspects, be it the loopy Lars (David Rhysdahl), shifty Ash (Danny Ramirez), or ex-army vet Ed (Dennis Haysbert) and wife Sandi (Dale Dickey).

Everyone’s a pawn, but nobody knows who could have the upper hand; at least that game never gets old on-screen. But we’ve seen abduction stories before, even the kind involving weather as a McGuffin or a dramatic motif. No Exit latches on to both, but it’s nothing original. Not one ounce of energy in Power’s mixtures offers anything to serve the imagination. More likely, the blood just boils over the meandering lunacy Power deals. Most of that energy runs with Ramirez and Rhysdahl, the latter winning me over last summer with his displays of subtlety in Nine Days. Horace and Jasper-level bumbling goons at best, this pair struggled to take any aspect of their performance seriously. Almost to the point where their presence, behavior, or depiction of any manner of mental ambivalence was nothing more than an insult.

And insulting best covers this film’s mildly villainous bend, supremely lacking with each cast member vague on their motivation. Power is clearly admitting, without saying openly, how noncommittal he is toward the material, settling on a mediocre potboiler that we’re all wont to stare at. Very little occurs once the scenery of the visitor center and its adjacent parking lot are completely over-established. To the degree that even the illusion of snow can’t move beyond just that, a meager Hollywood (or in this case, Auckland) illusion. DoP Simon Raby (Mortal Engines) makes a few crafty choices to sell the mood, still very tense in points with its slow growth. Though the question of what was real or not with this snowstorm, one that I rarely bring up even when a film wastes its CGI budget, remains a spot of contention.

Not so much with the rest of the cast, who looked like they knew precisely what they were doing throughout. Haysbert and Dickey, vets of the screen who could save any film billed to them, do just that, by cutting through the impossibly chaotic jibber-jabber Ramirez spews with little effort. Haysbert, character actor by heart, remained very steadfast and laser-eyed here, maintaining some weighted levity. And relative newcomer Liu carries plenty of pain, trauma, and even snarky on her back with her character, injecting needed clarity when context rolls in either too early or too late to benefit the plot. Not quite the MVP of Power’s directorial strategy, but a capable leading role just the same.

That all might still be a small potato victory in quietly reinventing the quiet, secretive, snowy mystery plot which films like Fargo, The Shining or Wind River sought to accomplish their own way. There was no clear evidence to prove that common genre schematic had succeeded to try something new. No Exit has no accessible entry point to even consider wandering off the beaten path, relying too much on generic concepts until the final twenty minutes. For all the tension, family turmoil, and real world fear of trafficking involved, only near the end could I consider this streaming-friendly brain burner remotely exciting. Liu makes the most of this moment, continuing a strong early career push, amid some lush visuals. Beyond that, I couldn’t possibly recommend No Exit at any capacity. If it’s tempting to some, let it satisfy that desire for a cold winter suspense thriller. Had I done my experience any differently, best to make it a double feature? (D+; 2/5 Horns Up!)

No Exit streams on Hulu February 25; rated R for strong violence, language and some drug use; 95 minutes.