Exam (2009)

Exam is smart, cunning, compelling and thoroughly enjoyable. It is well acted, the script is excellent and the direction is sharp and stylish. The only significant failing is the actual plot, the concept, which is difficult to believe and more than a little extreme. Exam is a quality film, but its core is deeply flawed.

Eight candidates, one job. They’re led into a concrete bunker, sit down at their desks and prepare themselves for the toughest exam of their lives. There are very few rules, and disturbingly The Invigilator tells them “There is no law in this room but our law”. The candidates accept this, and flip over the question sheet. But it’s blank. They’re all blank. There is no question. Or is there? During the next eighty minutes the eight potentials must fight it out, metaphorically and literally, to discover the ultimate answer to an unknown question.

Presumably filmed in real time, the eighty minutes flash by as you watch the candidates slowly crack under the pressure. If they don’t find the question soon enough, they might not have time to write the answer. If the answer needs to be written, of course.

At first they work as a group, thinking smartly and eliminating possibilities, but the closer the timer ticks towards the dreaded number zero the more desperate they become. Back-stabbing, cheating, lying and violence explode within the small windowless room, and it quickly becomes apparent that some people will do anything to get the ultimate job. Anything.

The film really rests upon the performances of the main core players – the candidates – and they all pass the test with flying colours. Luke Mably and Chudwudi Iwuji especially shine as aggressive narcissist “White” and team-playing Catholic “Black”. Named by White to ensure no one knows anyone’s names, Black and White are joined by Brown, Dark, Blonde, Brunette, Deaf and Chinese. Each actor has their own character to play with, and they come across as individual and deep. It feels more like a play than a film, mainly because of its one-room setting and dialogue-heavy scenes, but this is far from a complaint as it works brilliantly.

Exam treats its audience with a surprising amount of intelligence, providing an idea of the outside world without ever truly spelling it out. Set “Soon” in our future, an epidemic has swept the world, and only expensive suppressants can save those unfortunate enough to be struck down with the virus. The candidates are all hoping to attain a much-coveted job in the powerful corporation that makes these drugs, whose C.E.O. people haven’t seen for years. It’s an interesting and believable set-up, and avoids a number of cliché pitfalls it could’ve easily fallen down if the characters hadn’t witnessed the destructive force of a world-wide viral outbreak. This is more than a twisted version of The Apprentice – the question and even the job specification is genuinely unknown.

Direction wise it’s sharp and stylish throughout, with focus on attention to detail that forces you to notice the important things without unsubtly smacking them in your face.

Yet, despite everything about this piece being well crafted, at its heart it’s incredibly flawed. The C.E.O.’s hiring method is extremely questionable, and you feel there are perhaps a thousand better ways of assessing potential staff members. It makes the corporation appear sinister, cynical and slightly demented. There is no law, so the characters can do whatever they like to succeed. Is a mass murderer really the kind of person you’d want as an assistant? The film has a flawed concept, but it is still very good if you accept it wholesale. The moment you begin questioning it, it’ll fall apart and you’ll quickly lose interest.

Exam is compelling, intelligent and well-crafted. The concept is mildly ridiculous, yet if you can ignore this then you’ll have a thoroughly enjoyable time. We might not know the question, but the answer is always “Yes” – watch this film.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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