Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of films set within a locked room. That’s not the same thing, I should clarify, as a locked room mystery, in which characters have to solve a seemingly impossible murder. These films start with everyone alive.
The premise is simple and frequently used. A group of strangers wake up in a room/mansion/mechanical cube, and have to find a way out. There’s generally a time limit, or something else piling on the pressure – traps, further instructions, et cetera. The pressure builds and builds throughout the film as they slowly get picked off (by death, or, less commonly, quitting), until there are only a few desperate, crazed people scrabbling at the walls.
Of these “locked room” films, Exam is probably the best. It’s generally a type of film given to terrible acting and worse plots, but Exam manages to avoid, at least partially, those pitfalls.
Eight people walk into a room, all candidates for the same job. The final exam will last eighty minutes. If they leave the room, or speak to the people administering the test, they fail. Only one of them can win, and they can’t spoil their answer sheet. Those are the only rules.
The biggest problem, with gathering a group of strangers to watch the inevitable meltdown, is that the strangers’ characters have to be established strongly, and fast. The audience needs to pick sides early on, needs to have a stake in the conflict. Exam does this rather well. Nobody gets named, and no backstory for any character is provided, other than that which is mentioned in (brief, relevant) conversation. Despite this, the eight characters are all distinct, and you find yourself quickly picking favourites and hoping that others fail.
One thing the characters do all share is intelligence. It’s horrendous, particularly with this kind of film, when characters don’t find the obvious ways to progress. Nothing ruins tension and horror more than yelling at characters that they should should check the bathtub. Exam’s characters are smart, dealing quickly with obvious solutions and moving on to more complicated deductions as fast as the audience does. The whole point of these films is the puzzle, and it’s good to find one where characters seem as invested in, and as capable of, solving it as you are.
Exam is a film about a single room, set within a larger, global situation. The film doesn’t beat you over the head with it, but the realities of the world that the characters are from do impact on the room. The necessary exposition to get the audience up to speed on what exactly is going on is subtle and slow – again, conversation is organic, revealing information mostly through implication, and only when appropriate for the actual characters. I appreciate the effort.
Colin Salmon features as the inscrutable right hand of mysterious powers, a job that he always does so well. He has a definite niche as the essentially decent agent of shadowy business interests. He deserves more recognition.
The film’s ending is a little weak, relying on the audience’s goodwill to wrap everything up. It’s something of a misstep – it didn’t need tying up neatly, and it makes the film lose some of its impact. It’s not, as the qualifiers in this paragraph would suggest, a huge issue; the ending’s slightly too ambitious for the time limit, but the film still hangs together.
The acting and cinematography are polished, building and supporting the tension of the narrative. It’s a film all about feeling on the edge, feeling pressured, and it rarely drops the ball. Lots of slow shots of little details, lots of careful dialogue that reveals more than it says. Taken altogether, it’s a slick film, with the wires hidden away.
This is not a film that is afraid to make the audience do some of the work. I detest things that make it too obvious, that spell out every last little detail so no one could possible misunderstand. It’s nice to watch something with implication and subtlety. Exam takes its time, doesn’t rush, and doesn’t feel the need to pander to its audience with explosions/violence.
Overal, Exam is not a typical example of a locked room film, but an example of how to do it right. It’s a tense, clever psychological thriller that avoids being too obvious or relying on gore to sell the concept. There are, again, a lot of films very like it. There are few that are as good.