There’s “No Exit” from contained thrillers in today’s movie lineup

Hulu’s latest project uses a familiar formula when it comes to serving up suspense, and there’s a reason why.

PC: 20th Century Studios

PC: 20th Century Studios

There are many things filmmakers can do with a camera, cast, and unlimited imagination, but complex storytelling is not always a film’s focus. More often than one may think, it’s the simplest stories that can grip the audience most.

This notion is nothing new, and directors as early as Alfred Hitchcock with Rear Window in 1954 have been making use of single-location concepts to tell those thrilling stories. What could be seen as a lazy gimmick has proven much more and can be woven into a variety of genres.

Classic horror movies like Alien and The Shining draw on their location to create a sense of tension and unease. Newer films such as The Lighthouse follow in their footsteps, presenting the claustrophobic atmosphere with updated techniques.

Action bonanzas Die Hard and Speed create stellar thrills by forcing characters to think on their feet in a possibly unfamiliar environment whereas dramas like 12 Angry Men and crime flicks like Reservoir Dogs pray on the raw emotion of feeling like there’s nowhere to go.

Wheeling this around to where cinema stands today, the last couple years have been home to more of these “contained thrillers.” A list including Underwater, Old, and The Guilty feature one or more characters stuck somewhere for one reason or another, forced to escape from or solve whatever high-stakes dilemma they’ve been faced with.

The story-based applications for this sort of subgenre are apparent, but there’s also the practical side to consider. The film crew either needs to construct a set from scratch, which costs money, or get permission to shoot on-location, which costs money. It cuts down exponentially on costs if the location manager doesn’t have a huge job to do.

Shot blocking, camera and cast choreography, and equipment set-up is also required for every location, which adds time and effort to each film site mentioned in the production schedule. Especially with COVID still lingering and posing restrictions for filmmakers, it’s in the budget’s best interest to be as low as possible. Opting for a single-location story has proven repeatedly to be no sacrifice when it comes to crafting engaging narratives, so the potential cons grow less and less important.

This brings us to No Exit, the latest of this type of flick. Based on a 2017 novel by Taylor Adams, it tells the story of a college student stranded at a highway rest stop during a blizzard who discovers an abducted child in one of the parked cars and tries to figure out which of the four strangers there is behind it and stop them.

Carried by solid performances from Havana Rose Liu and Danny Ramirez, one thing the film thankfully does well is draw solid tension from its premise. The story’s concept is a perfect one for suspense and director Damien Power capitalizes on that. The tight cinematography and editing constantly give the characters as well as the audience a claustrophobic feeling, unable to escape from whatever danger is present.

The screenplay is the weakest aspect, which tends to be the case in a lot of single-location movies. Story is often prioritized over dialogue, unfortunate since the latter is what enhances the former. Any of the small talk between characters in the first act is very poorly written and does a lazy job of setting up who the characters are outside of the main protagonist. But once the plot really kicks in, things ramp up.

Other films have taken this formula and done more interesting things with it, but No Exit remains a serviceable thriller and those with a love for the suspenseful picture should get some fun out of it.

The ways in which filmmakers share their stories are ever-changing given the landscape of updated technology, audience demand, and many other factors. Regardless, having the plot contained to one place has been a screenwriting trick used for decades, and it’s doubtful to depart anytime soon considering just how much can stem from that simple notion.

No Exit is now streaming on Hulu.