It’s rare to find a thoroughly satisfying thriller nowadays. Too often, thrillers fall into the trap of leaning too heavily on horror elements like gore or shock factor at the expense of characters and story. While horror and suspense films can overlap, the genres aren’t one and the same. Fortunately, 20th Century Studios’ No Exit, based on the Taylor Adams book of the same name, knows what it is, and keenly focuses on layered characters and a tight plot with enjoyable twists and turns that delivers a stunning conclusion.
No Exit premieres February 25th exclusively as a Hulu Original in the U.S. and internationally as an Original on Disney+ under the Star banner and Star+ in Latin America. Some spoilers below!
In “No Exit,” Havana Rose Liu (“Mayday”) makes her feature film leading role debut as Darby, a young woman en route to a family emergency who is stranded by a blizzard and forced to find shelter at a highway rest area with a group of strangers. When she stumbles across an abducted girl in a van in the parking lot, it sets her on a terrifying life-or-death struggle to discover who among them is the kidnapper. Directed by Damien Power (“Killing Ground”) from a screenplay by Andrew Barrer & Gabriel Ferrari (“Ant-Man and the Wasp”) based on Taylor Adams’ 2017 novel and produced by PGA Award winner Scott Frank (“The Queen’s Gambit”), the film stars Havana Rose Liu, Danny Ramirez (“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” “Top Gun: Maverick”), David Rysdahl (“Nine Days”), Dale Dickey (“Winter’s Bone), Mila Harris (“Young Dylan”) and Dennis Haysbert (“Breakthrough”).
No Exit is a thoroughly enjoyable mystery thriller with layered characters, and unexpected twists. Director Damien Power seems to have fully understood the potential of his cast and script and deftly gets the most out of both. It’s a tight storyline from beginning to end, and the way that the story and characters develop over the course of the film allows the viewer to stay immersed in the film. Even with small elements, like a seemingly random bag of cocaine that the main character Darby finds early in the film, end up having a place in the overall story. Unlike other thrillers, No Exit never betrays the logic of its world or its characters for the benefit of shock value.
Havana Rose Liu leads the cast and you would never know that she’s never led a feature film before. Much of the film relies on Liu as the story’s point of view character. The audience rides shotgun to Liu’s Darby as she shockingly discovers an abducted girl, tries to figure out who to trust, and struggles to navigate the twists and turns that ensue. If Liu doesn’t effectively take the audience through her emotions and turmoil, the film doesn’t work. Fortunately, Liu proves more than capable, playing Darby as a conflicted substance abuser who discovers her inner strength through crisis.
In many ways, No Exit is a film about how people act in moments of crisis. Every one of the film’s primary characters are struggling with their own personal demons and external pressures, and Power makes sure to show the various ways that people respond. In doing so, we also see the complexity within each of the characters and come to realize that the story isn’t about who is “good” and who is “bad,” but that everyone is capable of both.
In addition to Liu, every member of the main cast delivers strong performances. Danny Ramirez is charismatic and easy-going as Ash, David Rysdahl is creepy and unnerving as Lars, Dale Dickey and Dennis Haysbert are warm and likable as married couple Sandi and Ed, and 12-year-old Mila Harris is impressive as Jay.
The chemistry between the cast is palpable, which is critical for a story that is essentially a feature length bottle episode. Nearly all of the story takes place in one location, and the characters don’t get much time away from each other. The claustrophobia is intentional and adds to the uneasiness of the film as the story develops.
Of course, a thriller must have its surprises, and No Exit has a few. The twists in the plot are well sprung and definitely add to the enjoyment of the story. Some you can see coming but still manage to surprise, and some are genuinely unexpected.
No Exit has a tight 95 minute runtime, which is nearly perfect for a suspense film. I’m rarely one to wish a film was longer, but because the characters in the film are enjoyably complex, an extra 15-20 minutes spent with more of the cast would have been warranted here.
In particular, Sandi and Ed are such great characters that serve their story purpose well, but I can’t help but wish that more of their relationship and backstory was fleshed out. Haysbert brings a gravitas to every character he plays, and while he’s known for playing military characters, he exudes a warmth as Ed that makes both Darby and the audience feel more comfortable. Haysbert and Dickey feel like a real life couple, loving and supportive with hints of pain from a history that’s only touched on. For purposes of the film, that’s all we need, but there was definitely room for more.
Similarly, Ramirez’s Ash and Rysdahl’s Lars would definitely have benefited from more backstory. Ash and Lars couldn’t be more different, and yet there’s a connection between the two that certainly hints a commonality that isn’t fully revealed. As strong as the overall character development in the film is, both Ash and Lars would have been stronger characters if their respective motivations and history were more clear. We know how and why Darby, Ed and Sandi got to where they are in the film, but it’s not as apparent what the path was for Ash and Lars.
No Exit features a wonderfully diverse cast without making their diversity the point of the film. Liu, Ramirez, Haysbert and Harris are all diverse actors who play characters who could have been any ethnicity. There’s nothing about their characters or the overall story that necessitates diversity in the casting, and yet this is one of the rare films where more than half of the main cast is diverse.
Culturally specific films are important and necessary, and at the same time, it’s refreshing to have a story like No Exit where diverse actors are cast in roles simply because they’re genuinely the best fit. We need both kinds of stories.
THE RATING – 4.5/5 Pocky
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.