Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Puzzle Box

I was a drama geek in high school. I'm actually amazed that I didn't follow that into some kind of career in the theater (or film, natch) as an adult. One of the plays I worked on in high school was Ira Levin's Veronica's Room, which is one of those plays where you confine a small number of characters in a limited setting and play all kinds of games with their reality. There are other variants, including Levin's own Deathtrap, but this was my first encounter with them. 12 Angry Men is an upscale version, for one example, while the grandmother of them all is Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap. These kinds of plays are puzzle boxes, and the fun is in sorting through the clues left for the audience to see if you can stay ahead of the game. I thought about all of this while I was watching Exam (2009, directed by Stuart Hazeldine), which would work perfectly as a stage play. It, too, is a puzzle box. Almost literally.

The set-up is simple: Eight candidates for a lucrative job with a shadowy corporation are confined in a room and given an exam. The exam's proctor (Colin Salmon) issues a very precise set of instructions, and who succeeds and who fails depends on how carefully they can listen to and, importantly, interpret those instructions. The exam has one question, he tells them. If they leave the room or contact the proctors, they are disqualified. If they soil their exam papers, they are also disqualified. When they turn over the exam sheets before them, they discover them to be blank, so before they can answer the question, they have to figure out what the question actually is. The process of figuring that out becomes an exercise in conflict and paranoia between the candidates, who are not prohibited from talking to each other. During this process, we discover a number of facts about the situation and the world these people inhabit. There is some kind of pandemic underway. One of the candidates suffers from this unnamed disease. The other candidates deduce that the company is somehow related to the disease. The candidates have varying reasons for being in the room, and those reasons put them at odds with one another.

The characters in this movie are types more than they are actual characters, but this is deliberate. They're not named, per se; they refer to each other by their physical and ethnic characteristics: Dark, Chinese, Blonde, Deaf, Black, White, Brown, Brunette. Some of the characters have more sinister characteristics. Brown used to be a soldier, the movie tells us, and is accustomed to using any means necessary. White is an avatar of weaselly corporate climber. Dark has background in psychology. Et cetera. The room and the exam are a crucible to pit these characteristics against one another. The last person standing is the one who is cleverer and cooler of head than the others. It should go without saying that this is all very artificial, but that's okay. This doesn't aspire to realism, and, really, all that matters is the puzzle. In this regard, the movie plays fair with the audience. It doesn't withhold information, though it does play a little bit with time, in the best tradition of Christie. But even here, the movie plays fair: it unfolds in real time and, sure enough, the discrepancy is there on the DVD counter for any alert viewer to see.

Director Stuart Hazeldine finds more visual pleasures than one would expect from a film set inside what is essentially a box. Exam's lone set is more or less square, and the movie doesn't really stray from it at all. This rigorously observes Aristotle's unities of drama. Hazeldine certainly wrings a fair amount of suspense out of his situations--more than you would expect from a film that deliberately puts a wall of impersonality between the audience and the characters. It makes good use of what must have been minuscule resources. As an example of how to wring a good movie out of a low budget, it's sterling. Writing can trump budget restraints any day of the week. Exam's not flashy, but it is efficient.

I'm not going to complain much about the dramatic deficiencies in this movie. This isn't a movie about the human condition, really. It's a movie that tickles the pleasure of solving problems. Have you ever puzzled over a math problem and had a rush of satisfaction when the solution dawns on you? That's the kind of pleasure this movie aspires to instill. Human beings are wired to enjoy this, so I have no qualms with art that fills this need. Exam's distills its function as a puzzle box down to its bare essentials, and there's a certain amount of elegance in its simplicity.


Andrew Green said...

Thanks for tipping me off on this movie....
It actually sounds pretty fascinating to me.

Great review!

dr.morbius said...

Hi, Andrew,

Glad to be of service. It's what the blogosphere is for, isn't it?

Ivan said...

Dr. M,
This flick sounds intriguing, and worth renting. May I suggest a similar film, The Method, from 2005? (


dr.morbius said...

Hi, Ivan.

Thanks for the rec. I dig me some Spanish suspense films. Plus, Eduardo Noriega is easy on the eyes (even if he's not much of an actor).