Exit Plan starts as a philosophical exploration of living toward death with a terminal illness. Max Isaksen, played by the Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, discovers that he has a growing, inoperable brain tumor. He fears his own physical and mental decline due to the tumor, and he also fears the weight his terminal illness will place on his wife. In response to these fears, he decides to take his own life so that neither he nor his wife will have to experience the decline.
The two suicide attempts that follow strangely provide the only moments of levity in the film as Max tries and fails to kill himself. In one scene, he has an awkward conversation with a man in a hardware store about how to tie a noose. After his second suicide attempt, Max receives a call from a former client whose husband had disappeared. Max, who worked as an insurance adjuster before his brain tumor, had previously denied the woman’s life insurance claim because there was no proof that her husband was dead.
A Thrilling Twist
The wife of the recently deceased was sent a video of her husband’s last words from Hotel Aurora, a hotel that specializes in assisted suicides, or as its advertising states, “Beautiful endings.” Max becomes intrigued by the luxury resort that allows customers to plan out how they will die and how their remains will be laid to rest. He leaves without telling his wife and pays for a trip to the resort with the intention of committing suicide. He is taken in by the beauty of the resort, but after a few days and a grim reminder of the purpose of the hotel, he is haunted by the part of the contract that will not allow him to checkout.
At this point, the film transitions from a philosophical reflection on illness, death, and suicide to a thriller about a terminally ill patient who changes his mind about assisted suicide but may not be able to escape. The sequences that follow are intense and will have the audience sitting on the edge of their seats, watching with horror as the literal skeletons in this hotel’s basement are exposed and Max fights for the little life he has left.
A Mixture of Bergman and Hitchcock
The film is a slow burn, but, since its stakes are the choice of life and death, every moment is filled with empathy and intensity. Arnby and cinematographer Neils Thastum create a world for its characters that is as stark and beautiful as the Scandinavian Mountains, in which the Hotel Aurora is set, and as warm and gentle as the love Max shares with his wife Laerka, played by Tuva Novatny. The film is a perfect mixture of Igmar Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock. Max’s struggle to choose between natural death and suicide in the face of an indifferent universe is as compelling as any Bergman film, and the intensity of the film’s suspense is as well shot and edited as any Hitchcock film.
Coster-Waldau as the mustached Max gives a moving performance of a man who is trying to remain strong for his wife while his mental and physical state is crumbling. Novatny gives a sympathetic performance as her character tries to be a loving wife, yet we find that she is secretly being worn down by her husband’s illness. The chemistry between Coster-Waldau and Novatny invokes most of the empathy that the audience has for the characters. The two do a wonderful job of showing that the disconnect in the relationship does not arise from a lack of love but two different perspectives of existence: Laerkna can still imagine a future while Max is trapped in the present.
On Dying Well
The film ends on an ambiguous note that will allow the audience to puzzle together what really happened at the end. The film does not cast judgment on assisted suicide, but it does cast a light on the inhumanity of the way our culture views healthcare and avoids death. At the beginning of the film, Max is taken in by the type of scientific positivism and life-hack propaganda that is unable to cope with the inevitability of death because it only views the body as a machine. Max attempts to eat healthily and do certain mental exercises to prolong his demise, but he discovers that these techniques were just a coping mechanism that kept him from confronting his own death.
His trip to Hotel Aurora further cuts him off from humanity because he is not allowed to die with his family or on his terms, despite the promises of the facility. He is cordoned off from the living at the hotel as he would be in a hospital as he reached his last days. In the end, his desire for escape was the desire to be with the person that he loved as he declined and faced death. The film rejects separating the dying from the living and is a reminder of the importance of community with friends and family as we face our common fate.
Conclusion: Exit Plan
The topics of illness, death, and suicide may be too intense for some at the moment as we face a global pandemic. If recent events have left you in a state of depression and you feel overwhelmed by the news, this may not be the film for you. Exit Plan perfectly balances the suspense of a thriller while asking deep questions about how we die. If the topics are not too heavy, Exit Plan is enjoyable and thought-provoking. You will be pondering the events of the film and the ideas presented in the film long after it is over.
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