by Phil Boatwright

Not Rated.

An intelligent psychological thriller with a hidden moral, Exam debuts on DVD from IFC Films. Written and directed by Stuart Hazeldine and starring a mostly unfamiliar but strikingly efficient cast (Adar Beck, Pollyanna McIntosh, Natalie Cox, Colin Salmon), the effective salute to the suspense thriller genre concerns a group of eight corporate up-and-comers who meet in a sequestered room where they must vie for a highly sought-after position with a covert corporation.

This suspense thriller manages to incorporate elements of The Apprentice into its storyline as well as a gentled-down Saw premise. And though it may not be everybody’s cup of tea, those looking for something original have found it. Rather than relying on typical ingredients that seem to govern the making of today’s theatrical releases – CGI effects, post-MTV editing with its five-second cutaway rule, and profanity-peppered dialogue, I found Exam to be what I like in a film – spellbinding storytelling.

Exam contains an edgy dynamic once found in films like 12 Angry Men, managing to cleverly build tension while avoiding convolution or excess. Like 12 Angry Men, or L.A. Confidential, or The Usual Suspects, here character development and dialogue are used as easily as special effects. Indeed, they are the film’s special effects.

According to Jon Bock, CEO of Grace Hill Media, Hazeldine, an in-demand rewriter often called on to spruce up sci-fi and thriller fare, is a dedicated Christian who weaves his faith into his work. This spiritual component is what sets Exam apart from typical low-budgeted thrillers. It reminds us of the need to work together in order to find answers to difficulties facing our world.

Though not rated, it does contain some violent action as well as a number of curse words. Like other Christian filmmakers wanting to distance themselves from the “church” film category, Mr. Hazeldine allows his cast to utter the s- and f-words with as much freedom as any main screen thespian. Perhaps this is to avoid a preachy feel, attempting to make the characters seem worldlier. At least the profaning of God’s name has been avoided, and just when you think the violence is going to become central, the filmmaker backs away from it, making sure to show the humanity of his characters.

Not rated, it contains 25 or so obscenities, mostly the s- and f-words, but I caught no misuse of God’s name. There are a few violent acts, including fist fights, the shooting of one of the people (it’s interesting how the perpetrator gets the gun) and, to get information, a couple of the characters resort to torture. These scenes, though unnerving, do not become excessive or overly graphic as in the horror films of late.

Now on DVD, Exam is a taut suspense thrill that doesn’t pummel your senses, but does stealthily generate a psychological tension.