"She's in the van."
A simple story filled with simple characters is the makings of a simple movie. Damien Power challenges that notion with No Exit, his feature-length follow-up to 2016's Killing Ground. And though the film could have been bigger, and admittedly better, it leans into its claustrophobic parameters, embracing its limited movement as we watch a group of strangers assume and verify each other's darkest secrets.
In the midst of a mandated addiction program Darby (Havana Rose Liu) is notified that her mother has suffered a brain aneurysm. Though her family wants nothing to do with her, she insists on coming to the hospital. But as she drives towards the mountains, she hits a wall of snow. The roads are closed, forcing her to wait out the storm in a nearby visitor's center.
Darby joins four other travelers sidelined by the storm. It is here, amidst the small group, that the story takes shape. The limited cast creates the opportunity to build and develop each, though Power bypasses the chance, allowing the viewers to side with Darby as we take in first impressions.
Sandi and Ed sit at a table with a deck of cards. Lars, positioned at another table, listens to his headphones while playing dominos. Ash is asleep on a nearby bench. Each appears separate and alone. But perception isn't always reality, and a lack of cell service forces the group to interact and become better acquainted—the game of the night: bullshit.
Though tension isn't high, there is discomfort as a unique blend of personalities fail to mesh fluidly. It's to be expected. These people didn't choose to be in the same room. Their current situation is the product of a series of uncontrollable circumstances.
When Darby ventures outside in hopes of finding enough bars to send a text, she uncovers a young girl bound in the back of a van. On high alert, unsure of who to confide in, she must make real-time decisions in a race to save the kidnapped and uncover the vehicle's owner.
Liu does well with the material given as she maneuvers in and out of a hole in the woman's restroom to secretly visit the parked van. The room, closed for a remodel, provides an assumed degree of privacy, even if the door offers little separation from an inferred offender.
In the main lobby, each character exists with a degree of obscurity. A distinct hesitation is felt between them as each appears satisfied with surviving the storm and moving on–no need to make friends. But now, amid Darby's discovery, her purpose changes. She needs these people. Well, all but one.
The third act, a combative confrontation meant to appease the indie-genre fans, lacks the execution to work as intended. Though adrenaline is pumping, delivery is inarguably sluggish as the film falls into a visual rhythm that feels painfully familiar.
But a series of twists and turns will satisfy many; however, forced dialogue and a lack of authenticity handicap the story's large-scale effectiveness. The film, stuck between a made-for-TV movie and a theatrical release, spends much of its runtime straddling the line as Power refuses to commit. No Exit struggles as a result. A festival experience in all the right ways, this film is good, but it's hard to deny what could have been had things not been kept quite so simple.
*This film is streaming globally on Hulu.