Although not an adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist play, No Exit certainly upholds its notion that hell is other people.
In this thriller, a woman recovering from drug addiction discovers she is among at least one deadly kidnapper after a blizzard forces her and four others off the road and into a visitors’ center. It’s the sort of fare Paramount or Touchstone Pictures released like quarterly clockwork in the 1990s. Also presumably once intended for theatrical release, No Exit has instead gone straight to streaming on Hulu (where it’s now available). Although well-cast and able to muster up modest first-act tension in a script by co-writers Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari (Ant-Man & the Wasp), it’s mostly undercut by a distractingly shiny HDTV-ish presentation that feels far too clean for the grimy places to which this story goes and lacks any tactile weight as it ventures into a rugged nature setting.
Darby (Havana Rose Liu) is accustomed to being stuck in small spaces with strangers — now on her seventh stint of treatment for drug addiction and where her current options are rehab or jail. Upon learning her mother is dying in a hospital, Darby decides to defy the court’s mandate, escape under the cover of night, steal an orderly’s car, and hightail it from Sacramento to Salt Lake City.
But road closures soon divert Darby from the main drag, and she’s forced to stop and wait out the storm in a visitors’ center alongside married couple Ed (Dennis Haysbert, 24) and Sandi (Dale Dickey, Iron Man 3), charismatic cool guy Ash (Danny Ramirez, The Falcon & the Winter Soldier), and jittery malcontent Lars (David Rysdahl). As Darby ventures outside hoping for a stray bar of cell service, she hears screaming inside a van in the lot and discovers a little girl bound and gagged. So begins Darby’s cat-and-mouse quest to determine which of the others is (are?) responsible and use subterfuge to save the girl’s life.
Liu embraces the insolence and insistence inherent to the stubborn foothold of addiction and lets us see how Darby’s own hangups about her screwups weigh on her decisions under pressure. Ramirez emits a calm and charm, Rysdahl persuasively raises hackles with loud outbursts, Dickey dazzles with slow-burn dismay at the decaying situation, and Haysbert brings enough old President Palmer fire to make you question why more thrillers don’t cast him as an insurance policy. (One revelation about Ed’s past seems to almost physically break him the way Haysbert plays it.) It’s also amusing that No Exit’s thesis to detect tells and trust no one emerges in a card game of Bullshit rather than poker, Barker and Ferrari leaning into the VHS throwback of it all. Another compelling curveball is the idea of late-stage capitalism as a catalyst for the ensuing chaos.
But director Damien Power’s autopilot approach and antiseptic aesthetic renders No Exit no different than a feature-length piece of digitally flattened television that, at least visually, feels more akin to one of Hulu’s anthology series. There’s nothing wrong with largely confining these characters in one space, but Power and his team lack the panache to wow with any sense of musty mystery in the layout of this rest area way off the beaten path. And once Darby is forced to take things outside, all of the shadows get lost in a monolithic crush of one-note blackness.
Despite a few bits of visual and thematic clarity in the film’s climax, No Exit generally congeals into a clump of dimly lit and clumsily edited moments of shocking violence. (A nail gun factors into the finale as it also does in KIMI, but this movie is far more enamored with the bloody fallout.) It’s another early-year thriller that (like See For Me) starts strong but ultimately isn’t worth the detour.