Exam

What you do with what you've got
★★★
☆
Released: 
2009
Director: 
Stuart Hazeldine
Starring: 
Adar Beck, Gemma Chan, Luke Mably, Chukwudi Iwuji, Nathalie Cox
The Setup: 
Eight applicants for a big job are put to a mysterious test.
Discussion: 

A reader wrote to recommend this movie, informing me that it's on Netflix streaming, and a quick scan of the IMDb showed me it drew universal raves. And it sounded like exactly the kind of thing I like, with a rigorous test of human nature and people behaving in increasingly awful ways and--here we go!

We open with shots of a dark gray room with no windows, and eight desks, each with a piece of paper on it. Intercut with this we start introducing our characters. They are coming in for a top job with a huge film. The guy in charge issues their instructions: they each have a question before them, and one answer is required. If they leave the room, "spoil" their paper, or attempt to talk to the guard or administrator, they will be disqualified. They are told that there are no rules but the company rules in that room. The clock is set at 80 minutes, and they're off! They all turn their papers over, and the sheet is... blank!

So now it's a race to determine what is really required, what the question is, what the trick might be. It's occurring to me now that the more I tell you about what they do, the more I will spoil your enjoyment, since the whole movie rests on seeing what they do. One person attempts to show what a leader he is by taking charge. Others take different approaches. They realize they have to work together. But they're ultimately in competition, and if you've ever seen or heard about some of the machinations taken on Survivor, you have some idea of what some people will resort to, and how they'll justify themselves. If you think things might escalate into violence, well, you're not too far off, either.

As you watch, one thing that becomes apparent is how ingeniously inexpensive the whole thing is. You only need one set and some actors, and part of what is satisfying, in a Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity way, is how they've found a very clever way to make a good movie with extremely limited resources.

The other strength, in fact. the film's saving grace, is the ending. A film like this sets itself up with pretty much everything pointing to the ending, that moment you find out what the big secret is, which is a lot of pressure. And without giving anything away, I'll say that the movie finds a good solution that surprises but also seems entirely prepared for. It also finds a way to successfully subvert the expectation that matters moral will grow progressively worse and worse, and can only be leading to some rather horrible conclusion. Meaning that while one might expect to come away from this thing feeling a little dirty and cynical: Poof! That outcome diverted. Nice job!

Lingering in the background, though not brought quite enough forward for my taste, is the economic condition outside the room. As the film goes on, one has to wonder why each of them needs this job so badly that they're willing to put themselves through all this. And we only gradually get a sense of what the job itself is, so it's hard to see that as well. We can intuit that the economy outside is pretty terrible for this situation to arise, but that is never made explicit. In its place is a concern over an HIV-like virus that has affected the population. The movie also only glancingly comments on a culture that values cutthroat tactics and ever-decreasing humanity and compassion in business. Okay yes, that's right there on the surface of the film, but at the same time I think it could have been brought forward a bit more and the connections rendered more solid. Of course a voice in me is saying "Well, maybe it's just subtle," and it is. What I'm saying is that maybe it's a tiny bit too subtle, and could have been strengthened by a slightly more explicit connection to what's happening outside, and by extension to our current economy and the way it looks to be headed. In more ways than one, the movie confines itself to only what is taking place in that room.

One last thing I have to say is that I needed to get to bed, and only planned on watching half the movie, then coming back to finish it later. But I was unable to turn it off--I had to see how it unfolded and what the ending might be. As it wears on it verges on feeling padded, but ultimately remains gripping and one grows more obsessed with finding out what happens.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it's a clever, character-based good watch.