Producer: Scott Frank   Director: Damien Power   Screenplay: Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari   Cast: Hanna Rose Liu, Danny Ramirez, David Rysdahl, Dale Dickey, Mila Harris, Benedict Wall and Dennis Haysbert   Distributor: 20th Century Studios/Hulu

Grade: C

A 2017 novel by Taylor Adams, not the play by Jean-Paul Sartre, is the source for Damien Power’s thriller, shot in New Zealand though set in the American Southwest, which was intended for theatrical release by 20th Century Studios but sold after pandemic delays to the Hulu streaming service.  “No Exit” sets up an isolated, claustrophobic situation in which a heroine must try to subvert a horrible crime.  It begins as a modern version of the sort of tale Agatha Christie might once have told, but in the latter stages it veers, as a result of an increasingly implausible twists, into more violent territory, winding up drenched in blood, though the desaturated color palette in Simon Raby’s cinematography bleaches out the red.

The script by Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari introduces Darby Thorne (Havana Rosa Liu) as a patient in a rehab center.  When she gets a call from her estranged sister than her mother has been hospitalized after suffering an aneurism, she escapes, steals a car and heads for Salt Lake City.

Unfortunately a blizzard disrupts her trip, and a state cop (Benedict Wall) orders her to take refuge in a roadside rest center where four other stranded motorists are already waiting out the storm.  Ed (Dennis Haysbert) and Sandi (Dale Dickey) are an older couple headed for Las Vegas; he’s an ex-Marine, and she’s a nurse.  Ash (Danny Ramirez) is a friendly, articulate, good-looking young man.  By contrast Lars (David Rysdahl) is a rumpled, long-haired fellow reticent about himself and prone to dark silences.  They try to socialize via card games, but Lars gets angry when he loses.

The ubiquitous cell phones can’t get service inside, of course, so Darby ventures out to the parking lot to try hers there, and hears a noise coming from a parked van.  Investigating, she finds a young girl (Mila Harris) tied up in it, but is interrupted before she can help her.  She makes it her urgent mission to identify the van’s owner.

That revelation comes fairly quickly, but it’s only the first of many.  It would be manifestly unfair to reveal too much of what follows; suffice it to say that secrets and complications abound, people aren’t who they seem to be at first, and Darby and Jay, the little girl, find themselves in increasingly dire circumstances—so much so that at one point Darby relies on her drugs to give her the kick she needs to go on. 

Power demonstrates a knack for gnawing tension, even as the unlikely twists accumulate.  He can also rely on his talented crew—production designer Gary Mackay has constructed a sinister spot, and Raby’s camera prows about it intently.  Editor Andy Canny doesn’t allow the action to lag overmuch until the last reel, when he lingers over some chases and threat scenes, and the score by Marco Beltrami and Miles Hankins adds to the grim mood. 

The cast is a good one, too.  Liu—also seen recently in “The Sky Is Everywhere”—makes a convincingly determined heroine, and Haysbert is always an imposing presence, even in a role that’s barely sketched in.  Ramirez’s geniality doesn’t preclude the necessary hint of potential menace beneath the surface, while Rysdahl and Dickey manage the dramatics of their more overwrought characters reasonably well.  Harris does nicely as the frightened girl who brings adds yet another surprise to the mix.

One has to tolerate a great deal of contrivance in a convoluted mystery like this, but for an hour or so the film manages it quite well.  Unfortunately in the final third it degenerates into some protracted pursuits and unpleasant face-offs, culminating in a final confrontation that strains credulity to the breaking point. A nail gun also emerges as a weapon of necessity, just as in Steven Soderbergh’s superior “Kimi,” where its use is more subtly conveyed.  On the printed page the an author can get by with such stuff more easily than a filmmaker can, and the escalating gore is less nasty when read about rather than seen as well.

So “No Exit” works pretty well for most of its running-time, but runs into trouble down the home stretch.