Nikolaj Coster-Waldau stumbles in one of his first post-Game of Thrones projects but at least he looks good doing it
If ever we’ve had a name actor who represents the platonic ideal of a prescription drug commercial Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, with his sharp jaw and hair lightly dusted with highlights, might be the one — it’s not hard to imagine him wearing a thickly corded sweater and holding a mug, watching beautiful blonde children swing on a swing as an announcer brightly, but quickly, intones the words “suicidal ideation.” Exit Plan, the new film from Danish director Jonas Alexander Arnby, manipulates Nikolaj’s “Dream Dad” exterior smartly, to its advantage. Because how could all that dude possibly wanna end it?
It starts by stamping out those highlights. Nikolaj, playing the beloved movie role of an insurance investigator — I have definitely seen more insurance investigators in the movies than there are in real life — is all business with his hair mousy brown, patted down, wearing big square specs and a no-frills mustache that might as well be shaved to spell out the words “middle aged.” This isn’t your teenage stepson’s Jamie Lannister — Max Isacson doesn’t look like he could even imagine a hand made out of gold, let alone lift one.
For a moment it feels as if the film might be playing the pre-makeover Sexy Nerd card — as if at the midpoint Max might take off those glasses, shake his dorky hair-part loose, and go nuts. And in a way we do get that, although it’s not the fun Girls Gone Wild kinda nuts but rather the “Guy’s got a brain tumor and it’s affecting his behavior” sort which, admittedly, kills some of the fun. Nobody’s paying $19.95 plus shipping and handling for that videotape. (Nobody I want to know, anyway.)
Exit Plan, it must be said, is not especially fun. In its defense I don’t think it intends to be — its main character spends the entire film working up the nerve to commit suicide, after all. Max learns of his brain tumor early on and that’s that — he’s ready for his bow, ladies and gentlemen exit stage left. And helpfully in the process of one of his insurance investigations he learns of a secret death spa hidden away in the mountains where people can go to end their time on this planet the way god (which is to say capitalism) intended — spending what must amount to an actual fortune to luxuriate in a glacier-adjacent hot tub, have his goodbye fantasies played out by accomplished actors while he trips balls on specialized brain cocktails, and then wham, they do the ultimate deed for him.
Now I know I just said that Exit Plan isn’t fun and doesn’t intend to be, but I also feel as if that intention gets itself a little murked up by the plot which I just described there. I mean, I said the words “Death Spa.” You multiply all the downer suicide stuff by this truly palatial glacial getaway — I didn’t even make it a third of the way through this movie before I started googling for its filming locations; it’s mid-century eye-candy for the soul — and one that’s stocked up with a troupe of Summerstage Kevorkians at that and, well, it all starts to sound a little fun?
Exit Plan ends up existing on a weird plane between fun and not-fun — it could have been a terrific “Bad Hospital” thriller in the vein of Shutter Island or A Cure For Wellness, but it comes out seeming a little ashamed of its pulpier instincts. The last act, with all the running and the shooting, feels somewhat grafted on to the fractured and interiorized front part, although it must be said that in there Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is allowed to do some really fine acting. His scenes with Tuva Novotny as the woman he’s leaving behind are especially touching — turns out this beautiful man can sell despair. (But anybody who watched Game of Thrones knew that already.) Highlights be damned.
The movie does pleasantly sniff around the question whether we’re stuck inside a Charlie Kaufman Adaptation kind of twist towards its end, as Max’s tumor starts clotting up the storytelling itself with a few fanciful visions, but that sadly feels dampened down by its too chilly and removed aesthetic — it could’ve used a real and proper shaking down of its hair. Ultimately Exit Plan feels like a Cronenberg movie without any sense of its possible perversions, and at that point you’re just fetishizing the wallpaper.
Exit Plan is now out on VOD from Screen Media.