Almost everyone — or at least those who have seen Tin Cup — knows the answer to this riddle:
A man and his son are in a car accident. The father dies on the scene, but the child is rushed to the hospital. When he arrives the surgeon says, “I can’t operate on this boy, he is my son!” How can this be?
Stuart Hazeldine’s directorial debut, Exam (which is being released on DVD today in the UK) is akin to a riddle like the one above framing an entire, full-length movie. The extent to which you will enjoy Exam may depend on whether you feel 90-minutes of entertaining and engrossing misdirection was worth the answer to that riddle. I like a good riddle, and though the conclusion to Exam feels slightly anticlimactic, the lead up toward the answer is both engaging and, in the end, not so completely misleading as to completely piss you off.
Exam has often been described as The Cube meets “The Apprentice,” and that’s not an unfair comparison. It’s a contained movie — it all takes place in one room — and it involves eight people from different races and backgrounds who have made it to the final round of an interview process. They are given a set of instruction by a moderator.
“There is one question before you, and one answer is required,” he states. “If you try to communicate with myself or the guard, you will be disqualified. If you spoil your paper, you will be disqualified. If you choose to leave the room for any reason, you will be disqualified.”
Those are the only rules. They have 80 minutes to answer the question. There is no other information provided. The catch is that each person is given only a pencil and a blank sheet of paper. Nothing else. When the first woman attempts to write down an answer to a question that is not posed on the blank sheet of paper, she is escorted away. The other seven are left completely befuddled.
However, one man soon realizes that the rules do not preclude them from speaking to one another, and so the seven remaining candidates for the position decide, reluctantly, to work together. Only, there’s only one position available (or so it is assumed, and then not assumed, and then assumed again), which means that there will be a lot of self-interest involved in that cooperation.
It’s a fun little game, and what’s great about Exam is that the viewer gets to be the ninth participant, trying to figure out how to reveal the question so that it can be answered. The 80-minute time limit, in addition, more or less lines up with real time. And given how little there is to work with in a completely empty room — but for eight people, eight pieces of paper, eight pencils, eight desks, and a guard — it’s surprising how well Hazeldine manages to preoccupy the candidates, as they attempt to find some hidden question on the blank piece of paper.
Besides the riddle, the movie turns on the interaction of the candidates, how they attempt to work together and undermine one another and the moral and philosophical choices that they are led to make, especially as the time runs out on their 80 minutes. (In case some of you are worried, this is not a horror film). To say much else might spoil the movie, and whatever you want to say about Exam, it’s nice to have a film-watching experience that isn’t already practically spoiled by the time you sit down to watch it. It’s also why I’m not including the trailer below.
My suggestion to our American readers is to simply add the movie to your Netflix queue and forget about it until it either arrives at your house or appears next on your Instant Watch queue. It’ll be a nice, unspoiled treat (it’s not yet available in the US, though I very much doubt it will have a theatrical release before making its way to Netflix). Meanwhile, I suspect — based on his work on the minimally budgeted Exam — that Stuart Hazeldine is a name many of us will be seeing a lot of in the years to come.