IIn the midst of an unrelenting snowstorm, a group of strangers find themselves in a remote visitor center, keeping warm until the weather allows them to leave. It could be the setting for an Off-Broadway play, a tight chamber play with lots of dialogue, but in the far less sublime Disney thriller No Exit it’s instead the stabbing for a fluffy sub-Agatha Christie cracker letting us know who did it a little too fast.
Our unlikely detective is Darby (Havana Rose Liu), a young addict who runs from the rehab center she just escaped from to the estranged mother whose brain aneurysm hospitalized her. Bad weather forces her off the road and into the aforementioned safe haven alongside four others (Dennis Haysbert, Dale Dickey, Danny Ramirez and David Rhysdahl) where she plays cards until the blizzard hits. But Darby soon makes a terrifying discovery – a young girl kidnapped outside in the back of a van – and realizes that one of her newfound friends is up to something sinister.
Wisely, it bypasses theaters and lands straight on Hulu (internationally it premieres on Disney’s Star platform) and plays like a Netflix-adjacent TV movie that seems a poor fit for the grandiose 20th Century Studios logo that came before it. Based on a 2017 book by Taylor Adams, it’s a thinly drawn pot boiler that takes familiar elements and barely rehashes them, with the end result failing to pull off as a worthy offering in the face of such consistently intimidating competition.
There are some initial fun watching Darby try to figure out who owns the van, a tense game of bullshit peppered with curious nudges, but it’s far too short-lived, an uneasiness that doesn’t stretch nearly far enough. Cards are revealed too early, a predictable revelation follows shortly thereafter, followed by a betrayal based on dynamics far too underdeveloped to have any real impact, and so a guessing game evaporates into a repetitive game of survival. The performances are mostly unremarkable, with Dickey being particularly underused and wasted in a role that mostly requires her to sit down and look concerned.
What Australian director Damien Power, along with Ant-Man and Wasp screenwriters Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari, struggles with is a command of tone, their film tower between two disparate audiences. For the most part, “No Exit” plays like a sanitized YA thriller, toned down for a PG-13 audience, complete with an awkward “I don’t want to hurt anyone” henchman. But then, as the frenzied third act comes into view, suddenly R-rated gore too, a last-ditch effort to appeal to the horror crowd that would have lost interest long ago now. There’s a nifty reversal late in the day, but it’s explained as an act of desperation rather than something more nefarious, and so a sharper bite is exchanged for something far more toothless, a development characteristic of the film as a whole. It’s an airport novel that’s now an airplane movie.