Grades Higher Than Its Peers

What happens when you lock eight ambitious people into a room for eighty minutes, and tell them that their entire future hangs on what happens while the clock ticks?  Well, you find out—in a sort of Lord of the Flies or Twilight Zone fashion—what folks are really made of.  At least, that’s the theory explored in Exam.

Stuart Hazeldine’s setup is both inventive and simple: a secretive Fortune 500 company is looking to hire a manager for an unspecified new product line.  To whittle down the remaining applicants to a single survivor, the company has brought them all together in one room, for one final test.

With only the barest of introductions to each character—more sketchy, even, than in a Leone or Tarantino film—Hazeldine brings the action immediately into the exam room as eight men and women are briefed by the exam administrator.  They are given instructions about what they may not do—mar their exam sheet, for instance, attempt to leave the exam room, or communicate with either the exam administrators or the lone security guard in the room.

As the timer begins to tick, the applicants turn their exam sheets over to discover… they are all blank.  And yet the exam administrator has told them that there is only one question in the exam, and that there is only one answer.  What precisely is the point?

Luke Mably as

So in Exam, Hazeldine has crafted a classic psychological thriller, a one-set one-scene conundrum of the sort that was the staple of early TV.  Hitchcock famously exercised the approach theatrically in Lifeboat and Rope, going so far in the latter as to present the entire narrative in a single “shot” by staging his reel transitions so as make the gaps, uh, less noticeable.  Twelve Angry Men is another classic example, the setting being a jury room.

Pulling off something like this is extremely challenging—and yet it’s once again becoming more common.  127 Hours was staged outdoors, and it snagged a Best Picture Oscar nomination.  Buried put the action in a box underground; and Phone Booth… well, you get the picture.

By returning to the genre’s interior roots, though, Hazeldine has done something pretty unique.  We know by the feel of things that this is “TV movie” material—that is, it has not been designed for theatrical play.  There’s no reason at all why this film couldn’t be as easily enjoyed on a laptop as on, say, a big plasma screen.

But wait, you say—isn’t that the opposite of what makes a movie a movie?  No, it isn’t.  Rather, I suggest that what moviegoing audiences have tended to fall in love with is not movies at all but “going out,” seeing and being seen—sharing an entertainment experience in a luxurious, almost decadent setting.  And over the last thirty years or so, more emphasis has been placed on the experience (by audiences, exhibitors, and distributors alike) than on the art form.

So what Hazeldine does here is take us back a few decades or so to when a greater percentage of high-profile films really relied on cinematic technique and less on star power, CGI, chases, and explosions.  This is taut storytelling in its ideal form, and Hazeldine pulls it off in fine fashion.

As you might expect, the resolution comes in a Ten Little Indians package, with even a script nod to the Agatha Christie classic.  One by one, the applicants break the rules of the exam, after one fashion or another, and are eliminated from the equation.  As the tension comes to a final boil, it’s really just down to three candidates—and, as is fitting in such an abstract tale, we come to a Leone-esque showdown of sorts.  And, as you might also expect, things are resolved with a twist and a sucker punch.  I doubt anyone can see this one coming, though.

If you like movies in general and don’t get too hung up on who’s in them or how much money was spent producing them, I can’t really see how you’d be disappointed with picking this one up under whatever terms you normally screen films.  Performances, script, story, score, and direction are generally all first rate. And the themes—which can’t really be discussed without spoiling the film for you—are worthy.  This may not be the film Hazeldine has always wanted to make—but I’ll bet that, after having made this one, a whole lot of doors are opening up for him that were previously shut.  He knows what he’s about.

Exam is unrated.  Given the intensity of the subject matter and a little salty language, I’d say you probably don’t want to watch this one with the kiddies.  But I also wouldn’t worry about my teenagers seeing this one on their own.  If I had any.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional copy of Exam.