Exam is a thoughtful, tightly contained puzzler of a psychological thriller with a vague sci-fi bent; it succeeds when it concentrates on its claustrophobia and its problem-solving, and it weakens when it leans on ideas that aren’t as profound or as well-developed as it thinks. It’s worth watching, and it’s a shame that director Stuart Hazeldine’s only film since then has been the notoriously dreadful The Shack. (Exam has a slight Christian bent too, most explicitly at the end, and this is one of its clumsier elements; religious films are hard to do well.)
The film takes place in the near-future, where–we gradually discover–society is still recovering from a tentatively stabilized pandemic. The price of the necessary medication is steep, and competition for good jobs–especially ones that offer a discount on the drug–is fierce. The eight job interview candidates we meet are all brought in a single, nearly featureless room to compete for the same position. The final stage of the hiring process is the titular exam, which comes with a set of rigid instructions and an eighty minute time frame. Pay no attention to the grim, dystopian decor and the armed guard in the corner. Ready?
The candidates turn their exam sheets over and find that the test is blank. And the clock is ticking.
The most satisfying part of Exam is watching the characters test out their various theories about what’s going on and how they can find out their elusive exam question. Is the company testing their resourcefulness, cleverness, and cooperation? Or their cutthroat desire to win at all costs? What will this mysterious CEO value? The room is so sparsely equipped that at first, it’s easy to think that the characters have almost no options, but the movie makes great, inventive use of its minimalist set. Between that and the intense, stylized interpersonal drama, this would make for a great play.
It’s also gripping to watch the candidates slowly descend into Lord of the Flies-style division and violence, revealing things about what they’re willing to do (or willing to tolerate, so long as they’re not the ones getting their hands dirty). The escalation is paced well enough that it’s not too jarring that it takes under eighty minutes for someone to almost get an eyeball sliced open.
Ultimately, though, even if we buy that these young professionals–of varying levels of desperation–are willing to go this far to get this job, it’s unclear why they think these extreme measures would actually work. The most cutthroat candidate, nicknamed White (Luke Mably), is instantly and openly the world’s biggest douche the second he opens his mouth, but … why? He’s a racist, sexist edgelord, but even most racist, sexist edgelords know that being openly, obviously racist is not how you would approach a hiring process managed by a Black man. If–and I’ll be vague to avoid too many spoilers–one of the characters guesses that another is a plant, there to spur on conflict, why would they decide that the company would approve of them torturing their employee for information? A lot of this could actually be pretty great satire, but it’s all played entirely–almost dourly–straight.
The ending–which feels like an odd attempt at addressing the problem of evil, pain, and suffering–only complicates this, and it again makes you wonder what the characters involved were ostensibly thinking. It’s an entirely thematic solution, not well-supported by the plot, and the final attempt to tie it all together via a Keyser Soze-style montage is style without substance. It can work in the moment–well, not the montage, but the theme–but it nags at your afterwards. However, all will be forgiven if it turns out there’s a DVD commentary that’s actually just presented as the security guard’s running inner monologue as he watches all these batshit events unfold in front of him.
Nevertheless, despite some weaknesses, Exam is an intriguing and tense film that makes smart use of its limited budget, and most of its problems could be solved by a simple medium shift: again, this is dying to be a play. And, unlike most films that actually want to be plays, it’s often visually interesting, despite its minimalist, Brutalist setting. It’s a first movie, and it feels like one, but it also feels like the first movie of someone who should have had a much better career. Come back to thrillers, Stuart Hazeldine.
Exam is streaming on Tubi.