Welcome to The Overlooked Motel, a place where under-seen and unappreciated films are given their moment in the spotlight. I hope you enjoy your stay here and find the accommodations to be suitable. Now, please take a seat and make yourself comfortable, I have some misbehaving guests to ‘correct’.
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This week’s selection is an under-seen psychological thriller from 2009. Exam functions as an intense character study and serves up a claustrophobic and paranoid narrative with thoughtful commentary on the way we react to external stressors in a group setting. The film also functions as an insightful indictment of predatory hiring practices.
The film originally bowed in 2009 and provides thoughtful commentary on the cutthroat nature of the job market. The thematic elements of this thriller are particularly appropriate when stopping to consider the film was shot and released around the time of the Great Recession. That period of economic strife saw very few jobs available and employers seemingly taking pleasure in making overqualified candidates jump through unnecessary hoops and cut through bureaucratic red tape just to secure an interview for a position beneath their education and expertise level.
Exam takes some of the themes and attitudes prevalent during that time period to the extreme and follows the plight of a group of candidates put through the wringer for a promising job opportunity with a major pharmaceutical manufacturer. The prospects are all given a test to complete. But the instructions are cryptic in their simplicity and leave the test takers nonplussed and unsure of the best way to proceed. That sense of ambiguity, coupled with the stiff level of competition for the position, serves to foster an air of growing paranoia; so much so that the core characters don’t even trust one another enough to share their real names. As members of the group are gradually removed for violating the rules, the applicants become increasingly distrustful. And before long, they are at each other’s throats, both figuratively and literally.
Similar to contemporaries like Saw or Cube, Exam brings together a dynamic group of people from different walks of life and confines them within a tight space. Their differing outlooks and approaches serve to cause friction and create an almost immediate sense of unease.
The characters selected for the exam range from seemingly relatable to utterly reprehensible. Luke Mably falls squarely under the reprehensible heading in his turn as a man known only as White. He imbues the character with a sense of entitlement. He quickly gets to work causing conflict and manufacturing chaos. As reprehensible as the character is, he makes for an effective villain. But Exam proceeds to show us that villains come in many varieties. Characters that come across as altruistic at the start of the film gradually devolve and prove themselves to be just as dangerous, and in some cases even more so, as those that were more easily identifiable as antagonistic from the get-go.
Cowriter and director Stuart Hazeldine proves to possess a keen understanding of crafting tension. He makes use of an unsettling score along with the rampant spread of paranoia to keep the audience unsettled and on edge throughout the entire affair. Moreover, the film unfolds in a single locale, which quickly creates a claustrophobic dynamic. All of those elements work together to create a nerve-shredding and unpredictable viewing experience.
In short, Exam is a paranoid psychological thriller that serves up palpable tension from the get-go, an engaging storyline, and some insightful commentary on the human condition and predatory hiring practices. If you’re curious to check Exam out for yourself, you’re in luck. The film is streaming for free (with ads) on Tubi, as of the publication of this post.
That’s all for this installment of The Overlooked Motel. If you want to chat more about under-seen and underrated films, feel free to hit me up with your thoughts on Twitter @FunWithHorror!