B-pictures have taken on a new life in the wake of the pandemic, partly because they so often depend on claustrophobically sequestered spaces. To some extent, the digital revolution made those spaces seem redundant, since online life collapses any clear sense of physical boundaries, but lockdown has given audiences (especially American audiences) a new awareness of what it means to be constrained in a single place for a sustained amount of time. Directed by Damien Power, off a screenplay by Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari, which was itself based on the 2017 novel by Taylor Adams, No Exit is part of this recent flourishing of B-cinema. Its unique spin is to connect these spatial conditions to one of the other recurring anxieties of the pandemic: the impotence of first responders and the dissolution of civic life.
The film starts in a California drug clinic, where Darby Thorne, played by Havana Rose Liu, listens to another recovering heroin addict talk about her journey to sobriety. Darby’s cynical, since she’s only been sober for eleven days herself, and has tried and failed to kick heroin eleven times before. When she gets a call from her sister saying that her mother has been hospitalised with an aneurysm, the inmates at the hospital don’t even believe her, since she’s used this excuse before to skip out on her recovery. Even though Darby’s sister insists that her presence would make their mother more distressed, she breaks out of the rehab clinic, hotwires a car, and heads to her family home in Salt Lake City. She never gets there, however, as a massive blizzard forces her to isolate in a visitor’s centre in the middle of a national park, along with a couple, Sandi (Dale Dickey) and Ed (Dennis Haysbert), and a pair of friends, Ash (Danny Ramirez) and Lars (David Rysdahl), who find themselves trapped on the same road.
This is already an unsettling premise, but when Darby goes outside to make a call, she discovers a young girl, bound and gagged, in the back seat of one of the vans in the parking lot. At this point, we seem set for a particular kind of film, in which Darby will take her time to deduce which of the people inside the rest stop own the van, and have kidnapped the girl. It’s an interior story, one that could play out entirely inside, and inside the perceptions and imaginations of the characters involved. Yet screenwriters Barrer and Ferrari eschew this option, revealing pretty quickly that Lars owns the van, and not letting much more time elapse before Darby realises that Ash is in on the kidnapping as well. Rather than trying to figure out the kidnappers, the film shifts to Darby’s efforts to thwart and eventually escape them, since they discover her plan to free the girl as quickly as she conceives of it. Both parties now have to achieve their goals without alerting the couple, Sandi and Ed, about what’s really going on.
That shift from a slow-burning psychological thriller to a more kinetic escape drama is the legacy of the pandemic, which has infused this new wave of B-movies with a propulsive horror of anything resembling internal space. In a microcosm of lockdown, there’s nowhere to go outside this rest stop, even in mild weather, let alone in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime snowstorm, and yet that very fact continually drives Darby out into the night, where she keeps trying to map out the furthest radius she can conceivably travel before her trajectory inevitably brings her back inside again. Most of the second act is driven by this continuous looping inside and outside, until the film seems to be unfolding on the very cusp of the rest stop. The result is a reflexive impotence that gathers in Darby’s efforts with sobriety, as the snowy landscape melds into her fever dreams of heroin, seducing her into a brinksmanship in which she mainlines as much cold as humanly possible before periodically retreating indoors.
Yet this acute sensitivity to the spatial thresholds of the pandemic is the mere prelude to a broader anxiety about the capacity of first responders, and civic institutions, to address the cusp between personal and public space. The entire film takes place in social facilities, a rehab centre and a visitors’ centre (along with public roads), and yet both of these spaces seem dated, reaching back to a pre-digital era. Neither the rehab centre nor the visitors’ centre have wi-fi, while the visitors’ centre revolves around a giant topographical map that offers an old-fashioned aerial perspective of the landscape that couldn’t be more different from the white murk homogenising everything outside. From the outset, then, No Exit seems to mark a crisis in conceptualising the point where our private lives blend into a collective public space.
At one level, this crisis starts with the departure of the police officer who escorts Darby to the rest stop, and her inability to call 911 (she only discovers the kidnapped girl after searching for a bar of reception). But it’s also embedded within a broader matrix of medical services: Darby has escaped from rehab, she’s travelling to visit her mother in hospital, and the young girl, whose name is Jay (and is played by Mila Harris), turns out to suffer from Addison’s Disease, an adrenal condition that can cause organ failure without proper medication. In a further twist, Sandi, the older woman who initially seemed unconnected with the abduction, turns out to have been a live-in nurse for Jay, who tormented and tortured her so much that she eventually agreed to organise her abduction in exchange for some of the ransom money.
If the film is agonised by the collapse of social services into privatised space, then Sandi sits at the epicentre of this anxiety. As a live-in nurse, she takes on the burden of the remote or ineffective health options that shape the narrative of the film, meaning that her part in the crime also has broader implications for American collective institutions. While she didn’t have any love lost for Jay, she was primarily motivated to organise the abduction by her husband Ed’s gambling addiction, which stems from his military service, much as Darby confesses that her father killed himself after serving in the army as well. The collapse of public into private health thus coincides with the devolution of the American military-industrial machine, as the last bastion of public service, into addiction and suicide, leaving us in a strange space where civic institutions have been dissolved into a new world order of nefarious individual agendas.
This new world is creepily embodied by the kidnappers themselves, who initially met each other when they were allocated to the same foster father, “Uncle Kenny.” Initially, they frame their abduction as a part of the same civic institution, claiming that Uncle Kenny will place Jay in a loving home in the same way that they were placed in his. Over time, however, it becomes clear that the language of foster parenthood is clouding a human trafficking ring, and it’s at this point that the film’s racial politics start to come into clearer focus. For while Jay, the white girl, is presented as the ultimate victim of the traffickers (even though their crime ends up consuming nearly everyone else as well), her taunting and torturing of Dee makes it clear that she’s the figurehead of the system that props up this dissolution of civic institutions as well. Put bluntly, the sanctity of white girls is both the ultimate signifier of private crime and the rationale for a system that unevenly distributes public and private criminality to begin with.
That double bind shifts No Exit into a drama of American civic infrastructure in its third act, as Darby finds herself compelled to (literally) become a part of the infrastructure of the rest stop in order to save Jay. The title takes on a literal meaning, invoking the “no exit” sign as a synecdoche for a vocabulary of civic wayfinding that obscures the erosion of the very civic spaces it directs us through. In a visceral final showdown, Sandi and Ed are killed, and the kidnappers pin Darby to the wall with a nail gun, where she brings her brinksmanship back from snow to heroin, and takes one last hit of drugs to free herself with a nearby hammer. Before she gets free, however, she learns that her mother has died, as if her grief has to be folded into the infrastructure of the film so that Jay’s white grief can resonate more vividly. The drug that got her institutionalised now becomes a way to break out of her infrastructural bind, much as she reprises her opening carjack in an last-ditch attempt to bring Jay to safety.
The message of this last sequence, then, is not simply that public space has dissolved, but that it requires minorities, or those typically relegated to the margins, to inject it with what little power is still has. In Everything Everywhere All At Once, Evelyn Quan, Michelle Yeoh’s character, has her first vision of the multiverse in a janitor’s closet, and so it is with Darby, who periodically retreats to the janitor’s closet in the rest stop – first to collect her thoughts, then to collect an arsenal of weapons, and finally as a passage in and out of the structure, since it’s the only part of the building that is still under construction. In a more muted and modest way, this janitor’s closet also provides us with a multiverse, as Darby tries a number of trajectories around and away from the visitors’ centre, but can only escape when she’s fully identified with the tools of the closet, pinned with the nail-gun and freed with the hammer.
No surprise, then, that Darby scoffs at the white girl who opens the film by frames her recovery as a work of Sisyphean labour, since in the film’s vision, it is minorities (racial, sexual, class-based) who work the hardest to keep civic institutions alive – or have the most to lose when they fall apart. Hence the most stylised and Sisyphean tracking-shot of the film, which follows the trail of blood that Darby leaves behind her as she concludes the final showdown by crawling through and past a sea of bodies to make a final 911 call on a dead officer’s walkie-talkie. She puts her whole body on the line to reintegrate first responders into the scene, and yet only has modest gains to show for it, since when we next meet her, she’s back in rehab, and is only 48 days sober, a mere month ahead of where she was at the beginning. Yet she’s slightly remade this civic institution in her own image too – when a visitor is announced, it’s not Jay who’s come to see her in gratitude for saving her life, but her estranged sister Devon, who we see for the first and last time, fleeting and precious as the film’s muted public spheres.