Every so often I come across films where all it takes is reading the basic premise to reel me in and commit to watching it. Most of the time they end up being based on such a simple yet high concept idea that the more simple yet unique it sounds the more interested I get. It’s already paid off twice this year with two films I love (BURIED, FROZEN) and also worked a few years ago with SAW. When I read the concept behind EXAM I was more than intrigued, but slightly less optimistic about how much I’d enjoy it. I can confidently say that it is far less interesting, effective or satisfying as the original SAW but has brief moments of being an interesting character study, but fails at being a nail biting suspense thriller.
EXAM finds eight people lead into a room with eight tables and chairs with a piece of paper and a pencil on each table. A man comes into the room and identifies himself as the Invigilator. He explains to them that they have 80 minutes to answer one simple question, and they must follow a simple set of rules. If they leave the room for any reason, communicate with him or the guard, or soil their paper intentionally or accidentally they will be disqualified. Once the clock starts ticking the group soon decides that they should work together in order to come up with the question they are supposed to answer, only they find that people will resort to anything to win the job of their dreams.
Director Stuart Hazeldine does some commendable work to keep this from being a complete bore fest. The script is really strong in some parts but during others, the mix of less than adequate actors and overall unlikable characters make the full hour and forty minute runtime feel like a real chore. None of the characters give out their names instead give each other nicknames based off skin color and hair color. The character referred to as White (Luke Malby) I identified as the only character I enjoyed throughout the film even though he is a wholly despicable person, but he keeps the course of events moving and interesting.
The rest of the cast while not embarrassingly bad are not near as consistent as the film requires them to be, since nearly every scene is heavy dialogue. The film is not carried by intense action or even gripping interaction between the characters. The brief moments of fighting or characters acting out solutions to solve the puzzle around them are brief and wholly unsatisfying. EXAM is a film that desperately wants to appear smarter than the viewers that it forces in several last minute twists and only a quarter of them are sensible, the rest of the time you are just left scratching your head then just shrugging off what you’ve just seen.
If not for the one consistent and interesting performance by Luke Mably I’d have been tempted to write the film off completely. However, there are small parts where all the actors come together and dish out a decent amount of believable performances. The situation they are in is highly implausible when you compare it to a real world scenario but Hazeldine finds a way to throw us into a world where this sort of thing might be acceptable. One thing that I think the filmmakers dropped the ball on as well was that in the beginning it is implied that the applicants have been put through a series of grueling tasks, but none of the characters even hint at what the tasks were. I believe had they worked that into the story a little more it may have proved more engaging than what we have.
Overall, EXAM is a film with a setting and twists that, in a post SAW world just seem overused and bland. The script isn’t nearly as sharp as it needs to be to sustain an almost two hour film, but entertaining enough to not feel completely cheated in the end. It lands just outside of the box enough to be different from most of today’s low brow thrillers but has flaws of its own. You could do worse when you’re browsing your local DVD rental store, but then again you could also do better.