Exam might have slipped under your radar. I wouldn’t blame you for not noticing it–B movies aren’t made to be noticed, they’re made… well, that’s a good question: just why are B movies made? And while I can’t answer for an entire classification of cinema as a whole, as a critic, it’s my job to answer that question for Exam. Why was Exam made? Obviously, the writer/director/producer was enamored of the project. Did he really have something to be enamored of, or at the end of the day, is Exam another movie with bad actors, mediocre writing and a brilliant concept?
Well, at the end of the day, it’s still definitely a B movie. Exam is a simple enough story for conflict to be borne out of. Eight strangers gathered in a room for eighty minutes. All are in the final phase of a job hunt. They are applying for the position of assistant to the CEO of an unnamed enterprise, in the not too distant future, when a plague is destroying the lives of the fit and healthy the world over. They are the only company with a vaccine, and while they froze hiring for new positions, they’ve been expanding in secret. And now these eight, conspicuously multi-national strangers are holed up in a room together with very simple instructions. There is one question before them. One answer is required. Any questions?
As always in a group this size, there are a few doers and shakers. One guy with an obnoxiously unsexy British accent insists on naming everyone to maintain their anonymity. He fancies himself the winner of the group, calling himself White. He insists that the names stay visual, leading to Brown, Black, Blonde, Brunette, Dark and Deaf. You may have noticed that’s seven people. One of the women has already eliminated themselves by the time anyone talks. This is this movie’s first problem: all the doers and shakers are men, all the reactors and outraged bystanders are women. There are two generally useless characters, one male one female, but by the time two of the useful characters have been eliminated, there are three men and one woman left. Sure, none of the characters are entirely fleshed out, but at least the torturer or the tortured soul could have been a woman.
The plot from here never leaves the bottle of this room. Not once. Hell, it barely left the room in getting here, and those shots were all such tight close-ups that they could’ve been shot anywhere. A leg with purposeful cuts on it. A man chewing a pill. A man praying to his cross. Shoes being put on. For all I know, those were filmed with the actors standing at the walls. It would certainly fit the budget and stature Exam had at the studio. Exam is a terribly small movie. When TV shows are running low on money for the week, they schedule what are called Bottle Episodes. An entire episode that takes place within one set. Exam is a bottle movie.
It runs entirely on conversation. The few fights there are are clumsy and awkward. Like Cube, the tension arises not from the circumstances the characters are in, but rather from the characters and their interactions. White wants to eliminate as many people as possible, playing the game Survivor style and seeing if he can get everyone else out clean. Is that the way to play? Good question, ultimately answered. Black tries to avoid harming anyone, but that backfires spectacularly. Everyone’s actions are meant to reflect first-year philosophic theory. It’s a simple game of chaos vs normality in the writer’s mind, and he’s trying to see who will win.
Did the writer do an honest job? Ennh. Odds are always stacked in these movies. It depends on whose side the director falls. Are they trying to make a shocking movie where Evil Prevails or are they trying to show that Crime Doesn’t Pay and that evil will always be seen through and punished? There are B movies for both causes, and we’ve seen enough movies with clear moral judgments at the end that are set up to be a great philosophic debate throughout the film.
The movie is ripe for sampling in trip hop records, which I guess means it’s well written from a certain point of view. The lines are punchy and to the point, delivering philosophy primer level debates on morality and what’s right between characters who are nothing but straw dogs for the other characters. Is that bad? I said in Reservor Dogs that all of the characters could be easily plotted on an uncomplicated moral chart, and the same truth holds here. I guess the question should be “when are indie movies gonna have complex characters?” I mean, other than Moon.
And there’s my final fault with the movie: the ending. I read Stephen King’s Under the Dome when it came out. I was aware that the book was a high-concept affair. The pitch was likely just “people sealed off from the outside world–GO”. The pitch could have been the same here, but in microcosm. When the ending to Under the Dome came around, I felt that the story had already climaxed and that explaining the origins of the dome was a necessary chore. It’s needed to feel like the story’s over. Sure, the ending wasn’t that good, but it ended the story and that was enough.
The same is true with Exam. The people behind it come out of the woodwork, the entire thing is explained away and it’s not exactly as tight or well thought-out as the rest of the movie. But is that really a flaw? Exam is about what eight people do when trapped in a room with no options and vague instructions and a clear goal that will save their lives. Do I really care whose life is saved at the end more than I care about whose lives were lost in the struggle? In a case such as this, it’s likely the struggle that’s more important to a story. So while I do begrudge Exam its ending, I also respect what it accomplished as a B movie: it was actually kinda good. THREE STARS