Danish director Jonas Alexander Arnby’s Exit Plan (whose original title translates as the not so subtle ‘Suicide Tourist’) follows a long fictional tradition of healthy protagonists who find themselves trapped in sinister healthcare institutions, usually after having themselves committed in order to conduct an investigation. This idea has its roots in Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel ‘The Magic Mountain’, which Gore Verbinski loosely adapted in 2016 as A Cure for Wellness. The general premise can be found in Mark Robson’s Bedlam and Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor; not to mention a host of various TV shows, most notably the penultimate season of Dallas, in which Larry Hagman’s JR Ewing checks himself into an asylum in the hopes of convincing a resident of signing over oil shares.
Where Exit Plan bucks the trend is by presenting us with a protagonist who genuinely is ill. Insurance investigator Max (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor and informed that he only has a few weeks left before his mental state breaks down. Unable to break the news to his loving girlfriend Lærke (Tuva Novotny), Max attempts suicide on a couple of occasions, but is unable to see it through. Then he learns through a client of the existence of Aurora, an assisted suicide facility in the remote and scenic Danish countryside.
Failing to inform Lærke, Max checks into Aurora, where he is given a few days to relax before leaving this mortal coil through a method of his choosing. At first the place seems benevolent enough, with soft-spoken, compassionate staff and a New Age vibe. Like so much sci-fi set in the near future, Aurora’s design is straight out of a Black Mirror episode, which means it has giant windows where its walls should be. Recalling the good times with Lærke, Max begins to have second thoughts about his decision. Unfortunately for him, once you check into Aurora, there’s only one way out, and it’s not through the front door.
In both its narrative and its ethical stance, Exit Plan is frustratingly oblique. Max’s role as an insurance investigator suggests that Rasmus Birch’s script may have initially seen him enter Aurora as a healthy man, there to investigate what he believes is a suspicious facility. Giving him a fatal condition and having him check in initially to go through with suicide blurs the lines. Any of Aurora’s clients who decide they want to stick around in the realm of the living are denied such a wish, but we’re never given a solid reason as to why it operates such a strange and extreme policy. The ‘guests’ have paid their fees up front, so why would the staff of Aurora care whether they go through with suicide or not?
Exit Plan is equally confusing in its tone. Packing a few extra pounds, with greying locks and sporting the sort of mustache no man with a girlfriend would ever be allowed to wear, Coster-Waldau resembles Colin Farrell’s similarly introverted protagonist in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster. At times director Arnby seems to be aiming for a similar deadpan tone as that found in the films of Lanthimos, and if we’re not supposed to find some comedy in this scenario, why does he make his leading man look so ridiculous? Yet for the most part, Exit Plan is decidedly sombre. What’s more confusing is how is how Aurora seems like a cheerier place than the outside world, which resembles something out of Kafka’s worst nightmares.
Ultimately, Exit Plan plays like a thinly concealed hatchet job on the assisted suicide industry. Denmark seems like the sort of tolerant, progressive society that will adopt such a process into law at some stage in the near future, and a bit of googling tells me that over 70% of Danes support the introduction of euthanasia, so Arnby seems to be going against the tide of his fellow citizens in this regard. The sinister nature of Aurora bears no realistic relation to the sort of facilities that already operate in countries like Switzerland, the Netherlands and Canada, and most offensive of all is the suggestion implied through the striped pajamas Max is kitted out with that a compassionate procedure like voluntary euthanasia is somehow comparable to the Holocaust.
Exit Plan - 2 ½ stars out of 5
Directed by: Jonas Alexander Arnby; Starring: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jan Bijvoet, Kate Ashfield, Tuva Novotny, Robert Aramayo, Sonja Richter
Eric Hillis is a film critic living in Dublin who runs the website TheMovieWaffler.com