ExamExam (2009)
Director: Stuart Hazeldine
Genre: Psychological Thriller
IFC Films

Synopsis:  Eight individuals enter a windowless exam room. They’re all candidates for what we’re led to assume is a single job opening. We do not know what the job is. We do not the name of the company from which it is being offered.

Overview: The rules that the candidates are given are simple: Each candidate has a piece of paper and a pencil. There is “one question before them” and “one answer is required,” but the papers are apparently blank. They cannot spoil the paper, either intentionally or unintentionally, or they’ll be disqualified. They cannot leave the room for any reason, or communicate with the guard, or communicate with the invigilator laying down these laws, or they’ll be disqualified.

Exam is the true definition of a hidden gem. I’d never heard of it before, and I feel pretty grateful for stumbling upon it as I scrolled through Netflix one night, looking for something twisted but exhilarating. This satisfied those requirements easily, lent an immediacy via its intriguing premise and overall execution steeped in intrigue. Exam is a very gripping and entertaining low-budget psychological thriller.

With that in mind, there are no crazy sets or special effects, all of the drama and suspense arising from the aforementioned premise and, of course, the interactions between our candidates, who must work together to find the question that they all must answer. But before long, human nature takes hold. This is, after all, is a competition. Deceit, distrust, and Darwinism soon run rampant in what becomes an increasingly claustrophobic and toxic environment for these smart and driven individuals, referred to throughout the narrative using only pseudonymous, superficial nicknames.

Besides watching these human beings revert back to their most basic, animalistic instincts and turn on each other in their quest for a presumably prestigious position, I also love the way Exam‘s contextual mysteries are slowly unraveled via a certain superficiality. And I can’t say much more than that without giving all of the little reveals and twists away, which would certainly lessen their impact. All I’ll say is, the film gives you just enough to realize that even beyond these walls, as in an episode of The Twilight Zone, or the more recent British sci-fi anthology show Black Mirror, there is a world that differs ever so slightly from that one which we inhabit now. There are certain science-fiction elements to the film’s contextual content, but we’re still largely kept in the dark, with only small details and clues provided to tease us into becoming lost in the film’s maze, a tricky balance pulled off well in the writing by the film’s director, Stuart Hazeldine. Exam‘s increasing insanity driven tension among the individuals under examination, in combination with the very deliberately paced and carefully placed narrative revelations from said individuals, results in a very sustainable tone that lends itself to intrigue, suspense, and dread. The test feels more like a game, and everyone appears at the ready to kill in order to win, Exam rooted in the high-stakes of a competition undefined.
When a film is as cerebral as Exam, and is rarely forthcoming with any sort of explanations from the get-go, providing audiences instead with their own kind of puzzle to solve together, I can see why some filmmakers may deem it necessary to over-explain in the film’s final minutes in order to wrap things up and justify all that’s happened over the course of the narrative. Rather than closing with the major reveal, which would have left viewers with feelings of shock, unease, but ultimate satisfaction, Hazeldine continues his story, providing his viewers with additional and unnecessary explanation. Where the previously disclosed mini-reveals would have been enough, with a movie like this one ideally ending with one last twist or shock, instead we get a kind of epilogue that threatens to dilute the impact of everything that’s come before. Thankfully, it doesn’t, though it remains entirely extraneous.
I have no other complaints about the film at all and, like I said, the threat of diluting everything else thankfully does not result. Even as the credits rolled, I was still reeling from everything that led up to the ending, and was able to forgive the tidiness of the same based on my overall experience being so positive. I would certainly recommend anyone give Exam a watch if you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-path, psychological thriller that truly thrills.