The first day of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, I was told there was one film I was not to miss — Exam, a minimalist thriller out of the UK directed by Stuart Hazeldine (watch the trailer here). I kept finding reasons to push off the film while working on other suggestions, and keeping myself busy pursuing interviews. Lucky for me, I had finally found some time to sit down with a copy of the film and catch it a day before the festival closed.
Exam is a slick, sharp film that runs at a lean eighty two minutes — not a moment longer than it needed to. Eight candidates for an initially unelaborated upon job with a powerful company compete with one another after what is suggested to be a tough, at times violent selection process. They enter the CCTV monitored and pistol packing guard protected room that will be the setting for the entirety of the film scratched, bloody, and dazed. Whatever the situation that brought them here, they are the cream of the crop; the fighters. Each candidate has a single sheet of paper, supposedly with a question, with one answer.
Colin Salmon plays the Invigilator, laying down the sparse but precise and unbending rules to completing the exam:
Do not speak to the cameras, or the guard, or you’re gone.
Do not leave the room, or you’re gone.
Do not destroy your exam, or you’re gone.
Then, the clock begins. Eighty minutes, no clues, blank paper with no hint of a question to be answered. The eight are left to themselves, and the game begins. Most of the film is heavily dialogue driven, and considering the sparse setting, Hazeldine could have easily beaten the fun and intensity of the film to death with an overreaching monologue, but he never does. His writing is very tight, engaging, and the interaction for the most part feels like something I could buy in that situation.
There is a lot of psychological thriller in ‘Exam’, with plenty of opportunities to watch the cast work for and against each other. Do they cooperate to answer the question, or do they attempt to eliminate the competition and narrow the field? Is everyone who they appear to be, and if not…how can they trust one another? Hazeldine does an admirable job bouncing these scenarios around the room.
As the story reveals itself, we learn that the prospective employer is a powerful bio-tech corporation (the most powerful, the story suggests) that has built their wealth on discovering a way to inhibit the deadly symptoms of an unnamed viral pandemic. This revelation really could have come off as a cheap and sloppy, but it’s integrated so smoothly into the narrative that you’re immediately on-board. Each character is given more layers of substance and emotion through this. These are ruthless people, driven for personal reasons to succeed, but not because they’re bad. The treatments are expensive; some have loved one with the viral infection, some have the infection themselves. Either way, Exam gives you a lot to play with and enjoy in a very short time.
The climax is satisfying, and you even sort of get a The Usual Suspects sort of twist…but not really. It’s worth watching to see what I’m getting at.
Exam comes out on DVD today, and I suggest tracking it down and picking up a copy of your own. If it does, the effort is well worth the time invested. Killer film, great cast, and a hell of a lot of fun.