The condemned: Exit Plan (2020)
The plot: It may be a truism that you can never really know what’s going on in someone’s head, but when a person doesn’t say anything about how they’re feeling, has a range of expressions that varies from “numb” to “slightly less numb,” and barely reacts to seeing a person shot dead in front of their eyes, that’s when you really don’t know. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Max, played by Jaime Lannister himself, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.
Max is an insurance claims investigator whose job involves denying benefits to sad middle-aged women whose husbands have disappeared and are therefore unable to prove they’re dead. We know this because we watch Max do exactly that in the first act of Exit Plan, a movie that announces its “strap in, because this is gonna be a fucking downer” intentions right out of the gate. The first thing we see is a video that Max films announcing his intent to kill himself, followed by a wordless montage of Max being taken to a plane, where he is given a pill and a slug of booze, and he nods off on the flight en route to his presumable death destination. (Deathdination?) He’s checking into Hotel Aurora, a very unusual resort: one that specializes in tailoring suicides to its guests’ specifications. After a few days of rest, spa treatments, and soaking up the austere mountain view, guests are given the assisted suicide of their choosing, whether it be quietly dying in the arms of an actor portraying a loved one or plummeting from a great height.
Max learns of the existence of the Aurora through that same woman whose death benefits he previously denied, after she receives a video from her husband saying he had checked in and would be killing himself that day. This is sounding pretty good to Max; see, our protagonist recently got news of an inoperable brain tumor, one that is growing and slowly killing him. (A doctor informs him that it could cause some speech disorders, then mentions “a tumor this size may change you.” No elaboration. Thanks, doc! More on that later.) Putting on a brave face, he lies to his wife, Laerke (Annihilation’s Tuva Novotny), saying things will be fine, then surreptitiously arranges to disappear and carry out his plan without her knowledge. (To be fair, he overhears her on the phone wondering how much more of their post-tumor existence she can take, so he presumably sees it as a kindness. Also, he tried to kill himself a couple of times already, clumsily aborting each attempt.)
From here, the movie mostly unspools the final days of Max’s time at Aurora, as he meets others staying there, takes yoga classes, arranges his death (a pill, a final meal, in his room), and even samples some opium tea that sends him on a hallucinatory odyssey through one of the Aurora’s ballroom cocktail hours. We see flashbacks to his life with Laerke, too, hints of how he was starting to behave differently, and regret over how he ruined his last birthday meal with her. Then, with about 20 minutes or so left, the movie starts really getting weird (spoilers from here on out): Max has his final meal at the Aurora with Laerke—who hands him the suicide pill—and they lie in bed together, until Max suddenly snaps back to reality and realizes “Laerke” is just an actor playing his wife. He decides he wants to leave, and begins trying to escape, running out into a blizzard in the middle of the night and hiding from the hotel staff tracking him. Is this a good time to mention that earlier he watched a woman he had met try to flee the hotel, only to be shot dead in the back by the hotel manager with a rifle?
In the morning, Max is still in the woods, but falls through the ice of a frozen lake, until he wakes up with Laerke over him, assuring him that they’re in this together. They go out to dinner to celebrate his return, but reality starts shifting, the restaurant floor freezing under his feet. Laerke thinks they should go to the hospital, but he just wants to go home. In what’s a real contender for one of the all-time inexplicable “wait, that’s the end?” shots, Max sits at home, holding his wife, but sees his house plant growing into some menacing foliage. Roll credits. Art!
Over-the-top box copy: There is no wild hype to be found on this Danish film, but there is a tagline: “Once you check in, you can’t leave.” It sounds like ominous over-the-top hype, but what makes it sort of hilarious is that it can also just be read as a matter-of-fact Scandinavian description of the Hotel Aurora: “This is how our facility works. Escape is impossible. Tea?”
The descent: The thing is, both the description on the back of the DVD and the promotional copy make this sound like much more of a thrill ride than it is. Check out how both describe this movie: “Insurance claims investigator Max (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) follows the clues of a mysterious death to the remote Hotel Aurora, a unique and secretive facility that specializes in assisted suicide. His investigation uncovers disturbing revelations that force Max to question the very nature of life and death, and the realization that he may not be able to escape.” Doesn’t that sound exciting? There is no mention of the suicidal depression gripping our main character, or his brain tumor, or any of the actual drivers of the plot, probably because that would sound like a total bummer of a movie, and guess what?
The execution: For all its dour-sounding descriptions, Exit Plan is actually not bad. It doesn’t pay off any of its mysteries—at least, not in any coherent way—so I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, but it’s an engaging watch. The question of whether or not it pivots on a Jacob’s Ladder-esque “dying man’s fever dream” remains technically open, but come on—there are at least two clear back-to-back scenes in which Max should die by any reasonable assessment. The first is when he flees the Aurora—he’s wearing a coat, but has no hat and the thinnest of pajama bottoms on, and he’s spending the night shivering against a tree in what is clearly freezing temperatures. Still, even if by some miracle he survived that (he didn’t), the next morning when he comes to, he walks onto a frozen lake and falls through. Sorry, Max, no way did you come back from this:
Of course, that’s assuming he’s not hallucinating his entire escape. Given that the whole movie is from Max’s point of view—and what with the whole “a tumor this size can change you” thing (essentially a get-out-of-jail-free card for whatever weird shit the movie wants to throw at us)—it’s entirely possible everything happening in the last act is a product of Max’s tumor-addled mind. Maybe he really does wake up in a hospital with Laerke. Just kidding, he does not. Come on, the whole point of Hotel Aurora is that you’re not getting out alive. Though even that could be more metaphor than reality—all the guests are required to wear striped pajamas, which is not exactly a subtle visual cue.
But the movie is pretty to look at, and its vaguely Lynchian mood always teases sinister goings-on just below the surface. That ominous creep factor bubbles up once Max tries to make his escape attempt. Here, check out what he stumbles upon when he descends into the hotel basement in an attempt to find a way out. It’s the idea of natural, organic burial taken to a whole new level.
The movie starts to slide off the rails right around the one-hour mark, when Max sees a woman executed in front of him. Rather than a reaction shot, we just cut to him desultorily waiting around for his last meal. He doesn’t really react. Sure, he’s got a tumor, he’s already basically non-responsive to most things that happen, but you would think seeing a desperate woman shot in the back would elicit a response more significant than, “Huh. Anyhoo, supper time.” Then again, he was told you can’t check out. Perhaps this is just some stoic Scandinavian pragmatism.
But let’s talk about the final scene. I’m sure there are all sorts of symbolism you could read into the growth of the plant in Max and Laerke’s apartment during the movie’s last seconds, but frankly, I was too thrown off by the cut to credits to bother. This is the end of the movie? It does not feel like an ending, at least not one that’s been earned. The movie’s abrupt pivot into surrealist psychological thriller territory comes too late in the game, and without sufficient justification, to land with any real force. But perhaps I’m being too churlish: Watch this scene, and tell me if you think it feels like a proper ending.
Haha, what? That’s a wrap, everyone! We got the shot of Nikolaj staring at the plant!
Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Exit Plan is a reasonably entertaining little drama, and there’s enough weirdness in the last act that it could conceivably work on the midnight-movie circuit. But the whole thing is so understated and restrained, with so little to really energize it in the first hour, that it seems more likely to remain an odd curio that the occasional curious viewer might stumble upon while cruising through streaming catalogs.
Damnable commentary track or special features? Not a one. Whatever happened to the obligatory behind-the-scenes bonus features on DVDs? It’s like you’re not even trying any more, folks.