“There is one question before you and one answer is required.”
Well, it seems I may have finally found a film about which it is nigh-on impossible to write too much about. With its bone-rattlingly simple premise and gripping series of rug-pulling exchanges, Stuart Hazeldine's one-room thriller generates the best sparks when you go into it with as little background knowledge as the eight candidates who find themselves facing the final toe-curlingly perplexing hurdle in a long and insidious selection process for a post high up within an ominously powerful and mysterious super corporation - the destiny-deciding Exam of the title.
Written, produced and directed by Hazeldine, Exam is a cerebral tour de force that takes the skulduggery of power-suits, God-like CEO's, hyper-salary motivations and the ferocious character-twisting that all this entails and mixes-in the realism of back-stabbing fast-trackers with a pleasantly weird SF angle to come up with something that feels like a stage-set Outer Limits episode - and the result is actually very appealing. Whilst it is hard not to think of it as The Apprentice with the Devil, himself, in the role of Sir Alan Sugar, Exam condenses the “process” into one long Boardroom session with a unique difference. As the sinister invigilator, played with ice cool detachment by Colin Salmon, so forebodingly says “There is no law in this room ... but our law. No rules in this room ... but our rules.” What the eight lucky, or rather unlucky candidates have to figure out, once this all-seeing, all-hearing presence has left a room that will swiftly degenerate into a veritable battleground, is just what those limits are. And once those test papers are turned over to reveal ... nothing ... those rules are systematically broken, as are their egos, their hopes, their values and their will to survive. The smart play, here, is that whilst the scenario seems preposterous, we glean that these people have, indeed, been through a hell of a lot just to get to this stage in the game, and because a largely very good cast are taking this very seriously, so are we. Is it just a job they are chasing - an ill-defined ghost of a position that none of them even know the exact details of? Or is something much more important at stake here? What will the eventual winner receive and, more importantly, what will they have to do in the eighty minutes of the exam's duration in order to win?
Eight people. One job. Eighty minutes to answer one question. Pick up your pencils and turn your test papers over ... but be warned, things are going to get bloody before the clock stops ticking.
Colin Salmon steps out from under M's feet to provide suitable gravitas as the invigilator - deadly serious yet polite and to the point. You may not feel any immediate threat from him, but the regular flashbacks to his crucial instructions begin to take on an incredibly ominous tone as the film goes on. Beyond him and an armed guard who remains in the room to ensure that those threadbare instructions are followed - or else immediate, non-negotiable removal ensues - we only have the eight candidates to deal with. This crowd are from a predictable demographic of ethnic backgrounds - Hazeldine's screenplay is quick to make a point of this, thereby reducing the cliché to a minimum - and their individual skills are exploited to the full. There's the psychology student, quick to assess her untrustworthy companions but just as quick to collapse under the spotlight, herself. The gambler who seems content to play the game, all the while keeping his own cards very close to his chest. The crucifix-clutching pragmatist with seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of trivia - chemicals, medication, the properties of photographic paper - that once seemed trivial and anal but could well prove to be the crucial factors in eventual success, or merely survival. The charity case who is there on what is possibly a personal crusade. The muttering, agitated semi-mute whose almost immediate emotional breakdown once he has turned his paper over seems to become some sort of portentous catalyst - is he the only one who has seen the question and, thereby, the exam's outcome ... and has he been turned mad because of it? Then there is the strong-willed professional woman, content to sit at the back for much of the proceedings and to take stock, but also smoothly opportunist as well.
Others fill out the assortment of dislikeable go-getters, but the breakout star of the show is undoubtedly Luke Mably. Essaying the street-smart, cut-throat sensibility of a corporate shark wannabe, Mably is profoundly grating as Candidate No. 5, or “White” as he christens himself during an impromptu moniker attaching ceremony that he, himself, instigates in the form of another tactical round of put-downs. Other physically descriptive nicknames would include Black, Brown, Blonde, Dark and Deaf - surely a reference to Tarantino's similarly limited-in-setting, ensemble who's who with Reservoir Dogs. White is meant to annoy and irritate and irk - and he does this in spades. At times you wish you could just plunge your fist or your boot through the screen at him. Yet, of everyone there, he is the one that we most associate with - and that is the most devious and inspired element of his genetic make-up. All of them have theories and ideas to put forward, but White is the one who bears the frustration and the anger of the thwarted chip-on-the-shoulder, wind-up-merchant the best. The only reason that we don't actually like him is because he reminds us of ourselves - it is just that he has the brass balls and the sheer schoolboy delight in goading enough to come out and say the things that we would tend to keep hidden away. Given the situation and the aggression that it seems clear one must exhibit in order to pass the test, he is only putting forward our own startling, on-the-edge diagnosis of what is really going on. Brilliantly, as much as he annoys us, he also entertains us. And when the glass shatters on the group barometer, you can instinctively feel that he has either done precisely the “right” thing in hastening its explosion or he has merely done precisely what the mysterious test-creators have “expected” him to do all along. Like The Usual Suspects, can this line-up really be just a coincidence?
But Mably has strong competition - and not least in the exam stakes - because the double-act of Jimi Mistry's gambling con-man, Brown, and Chukwudi Iwuji's righteous, group-ethic team-player, Black, are a massively complex and compelling pair of individuals. All have skeletons in the closet, and all will be forced to expose them, but only this trio become genuinely three-dimensional as a result and worth placing money on. Ironically, though, it is the ladies who don't quite come up to scratch. Conceivably still seen as the underdogs when climbing the corporate ladder, you would expect the lasses in this sterile Kubrickian arena to enter the fray as verbally agile Joans of Arc, yet whilst two of them - Adar Beck's Dark and Pollyanna MacIntosh's Brunette - ably got toe to toe with the blokes, they can't help but come across as contrived. However, when things turn decidedly sly and actually downright vicious, both find a new level of vulnerability and rage to painfully explore. Sadly, though, Nathalie Cox's Blonde just doesn't convince as anything other than being blonde, which we are very luck doesn't actually come to undermine any of the more devastating developments as the acceleratingly acidic struggle barrels along.
“Resilience is an attribute in these dark times, and if you can't survive the selection process, you won't survive in the job.”
Set sometime “Soon”, the film has to be allowed a fair chunk of creative leeway. Outside of this human chessboard, the world is not quite as we know it. The stakes for this job are high, but there is an overriding reason for this, which I will not go into. The SF slant is teasingly played out and it is probably better to just accept it at face-value since this is a story and a concept that has been written around personality clashes, the monstrous struggle of the id and the spectacular violence of the threatened super-ego. The “outside” and its problems are cute but, in the intimate scheme of things, irrelevant to the real group dynamic on show here. This is any set of competitive people locked in a room with a task to undertake that will see only one of them prevail - all Hazeldine has done with the original story idea from Simon Garrity is heighten it to dramatic levels of psychological drama and enforced torment. Hazeldine had a hand in rewriting the ailing screenplays for Knowing and the abysmal remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still (a film that could never be rewritten into anything of worth), proving that he likes head-scratching Sci-Fi. Without a doubt, Exam, which is his directorial debut, is the best thing that he has been involved with. Tightly structured and big on ambition, this may not offer anything but yawn-induced indifference from real psychologists, but as a morality-crunching power-play for the masses and, acutely, those swept up in the rat-race, this cautionary tale more than passes the test.
But if there is a problem with having such an irresistible hook, then it is that the finale runs the risk of not living up to expectations. And such is the, perhaps inevitable, case with Exam. Whilst it would actually be difficult to come up with something earth-shattering and yet still adhering to the reality of the plot, Hazeldine struggles to give the climax and the revelations that it throws up enough to fully satisfy us. This is what tends to happen when you've come up with a brilliant conceit - I mean just look at the absolute cop-out of TV show Lost (six years in the making and that's the eventual pay-off for all those now ironically lost hours of clue-unravelling). But whilst Exam may not deliver quite the bombshell denouement you may have craved, it deserves kudos for not going for some illogical final twist either. The fact that the film does actually have an over-arcing story, that only comes out via the strained interplay between the candidates, means that the ending makes sense. In a genre that is rife with paradox and the cunning narrative of the escalating “mindf*ck”, Exam should really get a pat on the back for maintaining its own believable universe.
DOP Tim Wooster ignores the flatness and captivity of the one-room scenario, with the group dynamic brilliantly depicted in roving character assessments, soul-revealing close-ups, frantic one-shot exchanges and confrontations of increasingly more volatile proportions, and a smooth, always striking visual panache. As the various candidates investigate and probe their hideously mocking test papers, we are permitted to scrutinise them in remarkable texture and pulp-intimate clarity too. Our own frustrations having us scanning and re-scanning the papers with almost as much intensity as those whose futures depend upon on finding not just the answer to the question, but the question itself. And to this end, the score from Stephen (Jennifer's Body) Barton and television composer Matthew Cracknell is a fantastic ambient flood of sinister mood and growing anxiety, shades of Moon's melancholic identity crisis reverberate through.
So, in my opinion, this is an Exam that is definitely worth sitting, folks. As the time ebbs away and the number of candidates begins to dwindle, you get a Ten Little Indians scenario that is less about corporate cloak and dagger and more about apocalyptic ambitions gone deadly.
Please note that after trying it on two separate models, it seems that this region-free UK disc does not work on a US PS3, although, as I will detail in the technical review of the transfer, this may well be due to the unfinished nature of the test copy that we were supplied with.