Circumstantial serendipity is always a shaky place to build a story premise upon. In No Exit, the mystery-thriller from director Damien Power based upon Taylor Adams’ novel of the same name, that conglomeration of destiny plays an outsized role in the coming together of recurring addict Darby Thorne (Havana Rose Liu), older marrieds Ed and Sandi (Dennis Haysbert and Dale Dickey) and travelers Ash (Danny Ramirez) and Lars (David Rysdahl) inside a remote rest stop during a blizzard. What ensues is intended to play out like a taut thriller with the strangers discovering secrets and lies that make this respite from the storm more like a Pandora’s box of increasing calamities and escalating stakes.
The “box” in this scenario is actually a van with blacked-out windows in the rest stop parking lot. Darby finds herself there because she’s broken out of her Nth rehab stay once she finds out that her mom is in critical condition due to an aneurysm. In a stolen car trying to beat the storm in the mountains, an officer told her to wait out the storm at the rest stop. Thus, she tentatively gets to know her fellow travelers. It’s only when she ventures outside to find some cell coverage that she looks inside the van and finds a little girl, weeping and taped up in the back. Compelled to help her, Darby takes it upon herself to figure out the van’s owner and how to get the girl out during a raging storm without alerting the culprit.
What should have been a clever little story just isn’t. Perhaps it’s because the first act unfolds like Power is purposefully leaving a trail of obvious breadcrumbs meant to make you question if what we’re observing should be accepted at face value. Lingering shots of dull rehab paintings, strangely framed hallways and an odd non sequitur dream/memory when Darby is sleeping in her car all come across like obnoxious nudges from the film telling us to perk up and question what we’re seeing. It makes for a very distracting first 20 minutes where everything feels more fraught and complicated than it should.
By the second act, it becomes more apparent that a duck is a duck. That’s where the paper-thin nature of the whole construct comes into focus, and let’s just say it flaps in the wind with some desperation—more so than the “blizzard” that’s supposed to be howling outside, which barely looks like a tiny squall. Where was the budget for at least one major fan? If I can’t believe they all couldn’t just walk back to their cars without so much as a wheel spin, how can I go along with everything else thrown at them?
Power does get points for keeping No Exit’s runtime to a brisk and lean 90 minutes, but he doesn’t have as deft a handle on all the other various working parts of the story. There have been substantial changes from the novel—including Darby’s addiction problem, which doesn’t really impact her approach to the escalating situation outside of a plot contrivance that doesn’t feel particularly necessary. And the third act goes for a tonal switch that does not gel with the first two at all. If you like violence, you’ll be pleased. Without any foreshadowing or any narrative groundwork about why it suddenly comes about in a graphic way, it feels like Power and the writers are admitting the story isn’t holding weight anymore so they might as well go torture porn to get attentions back.
What’s worse is this whodunit ensemble of great character actors deserve better than the tropes they’ve been saddled with. Rose Liu is the standout with her resilient take on Darby. In her hands, she is clearly a young woman who has been through a lot—it’s going to take a lot to rattle her. However, for someone who is constantly in rehab and has alienated all of her family and friends, there is dissonance as this technically still strung-out Darby is as competent as she is in this situation. And yeah, the intent isn’t lost that the scenario is meant to show Darby that she’s stronger than she thinks, but the logic is pretty fuzzy and convenient.
That murkiness also applies to others in the ensemble, especially when it comes to clear motivations. Lars is painted as the weirdo from the very start, but as truths are revealed, the character doesn’t get the context desired to make him more complex. Haysbert and Dickey are very fine at what they do, and they do their best here. But late in the story, a flashback scenario tries to victim-shame the little kid in the van to explain away a rather dire reveal, and it really taints everything with an ickiness that undermines what the sympathy the filmmakers want us to feel for a whole swath of characters. Not to mention the relentless confrontation that goes to levels beyond comprehension; it’s almost like a reel from The Terminator was accidentally spliced into Power’s Avid.
When all the dust, or drifts, have settled, No Exit tries to end on a note of redemption. But there’s a hollowness to it all because the movie doesn’t bother to include some actual, emotion-filled relationships to bookend Darby’s journey. Early on, all we get are cold phone calls and text messages to convey the bridges burned in her life, which reinforce Darby’s solitary persona throughout. Trying to turn that into something else without putting the work into the script is as jarring as bouncing off a locked door.
Director: Damien Power
Writer: Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari
Starring: Havana Rose Liu, Danny Ramirez, Dennis Haysbert, Dale Dickey, David Rysdahl
Release Date: February 25, 2021 (Hulu)
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and The Story of Marvel Studios in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.