Tuesday, August 23, 2011

High-Concept Exam Garners High Marks, But Not a Perfect Score

The term "high concept" carries low-brow connotations, and it's no wonder given the titles of stories that carry the label. Snakes on a Plane and Hobo with a Shotgun don't exactly sound burdened with an excess of philosophical ruminations. But sometimes a high concept can hone a storyteller's craft to razor sharpness. Consider writer/director Stuart Hazeldine's Exam, a single-premise thriller set entirely in one room.

Only eight candidates have made it to the final examination, a test to determine who will receive positions with the company -- and not just any sort of position. Rumor has it that this particular job will offer great pay, luxurious benefits and even (some whisper) medical innovations to extend one's life. An enviable job, one that almost anyone would do anything to secure. But none of the candidates expected an examination quite like this. They've been instructed about the rules of the test by a mysterious individual who calls himself the Invigilator. If they deface the single sheet of paper at each of their desks, they will be eliminated. If they attempt to speak with the armed guard at the exit, they will be eliminated. If they leave the room for any reason, they will be eliminated. There is but one question, and they have eighty minutes to answer it. Only they quickly discover they share a common dilemma: Each of their papers is blank.

Exam feels like a blending of 12 Angry Men and The Usual Suspects, a pressure-cooker story where personalities unravel under relentless tension and everyone isn't who he seems to be. Like most narratives with twist endings, it requires a bit more suspension of disbelief in the final moments than many viewers will likely be willing to give. But it's fascinating to watch how Hazeldine unspools possibility after possibility from the simple premise. Could the paper contain a hidden message? If it did, would different sorts of light reveal it? How about liquids? Or could the paper be a red herring? Could the real question be whether or not all of the candidates are, in fact, really candidates? Could one -- or more -- be a plant, and how far will the rest go to find out? Exam may not garner perfect marks, but it certainly scores high for inventiveness.

(Picture: CC 2011 by pamlau; Hat Tip: io9)

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