Playing Nice with Exam, by Sarah Brinks
Thank you for reading “Playing Nice,” a series of articles that will examine group dynamics in film. I’m not a behavioral psychologist or anything but I am an avid movie watcher and life-long member/observer of the human race. One of the things that have fascinated me over the years is how group dynamics are depicted in film and especially how they are depicted when the thin veneer of society is stripped away.
Exam is the perfect place to start this series. **This article will contain spoilers. I highly recommend you watch the film first and then read the article if you care about spoilers** This 2009 British film from director and writer Stuart Hazeldine strips away the rules that govern society and leaves a group of eight diverse individuals to solve a problem without fear of punishment or blame. The film is about a group of eight candidates, four men and four women, who are competing for a job. Jobs at this level are hard to come by and as a result the candidates are highly motivated. We see each candidate getting ready for the exam while the credits role, but the only film set we really see is the exam room. At the start of the exam the candidates are told by The Invigilator that they have eighty minutes to answer the one question that is before them. They are told that the rules of the outside world do not apply theirs is the only law in that room. The only rules are the time limit, they cannot leave the room, they cannot attempt to communicate with the guard or anyone outside the room and they have only one paper and cannot spoil it on purpose or on accident or they will be disqualified.
Part of what I love about Exam is the fact that the characters are all smart and diverse. You have eight very different points of view in the exam room. There are four men and four women of varying ethnic backgrounds and professions. It is believable that this group of people would have passed earlier rounds of interviews to get to this final exam. Though each person is different and has a different approach to getting to ‘the answer’ they all have similar underlying characteristics that make them qualified applicants for a high-level, management position at a Fortune 500 company. They are all highly-driven, well-educated, competitive, leaders. They all want to win and will do what is necessary to get the job, though some will go further than others. It is their personal and ethical limits that really set them apart.
Things start off cooperatively. Though the character nick-named White takes the leadership role first, he also nick-names all the people taking the exam. The main characters are White, Black, Brown, Brunette, Blonde, Dark, and Deaf. The other characters are The Invigilator, The Guard, and The CEO. Keeping everyone from having real names keeps everything ambiguous, like a blind scientific study. Once White gets the group talking they decide to collaborate until they find the question to answer.
White drives the majority of the conflict in the film. He is the most combative personality and purposely sabotages both Deaf and Brunette’s papers causing them to be removed from the Exam room. He is also in direct conflict with Black. Black wants to work together as a group and is unwilling to sacrifice others for his own gain. Though he does actively work against White in what he believes is the service of the group. This conflict is brought to its height at the end of the film when White uses The Guard to shoot and kill Black. Of course, the twist of the film is that the bullet did not actually kill him, instead it heals him. Their conflict pivots around the contradicting perspectives of “the good of the many” versus “the good of the one”. There are merits to both perspectives but one is naturally more self-serving than the other.
White is the sort of manipulative personality that brings out the weaknesses in others while carefully revealing as little about himself as possible. We learn that there has been a pandemic that has caused the mysterious and nearly sudden death in a large percentage of the world’s population. And that a suppressant has been developed by the company with whom they are trying to get the job. White manipulates Brunette into admitting that her partner has the disease and she wants the job for easier access to the suppressant, while not revealing he has the condition until he has no other choice. White manipulates Dark into giving him the information he wants about the employer/CEO. But White is not the only manipulator in the group. Brown resorts to torcher in order to get information from Dark believing she is a plant. Deaf ultimately manipulates them all by altering the clock within the room which leads to White being eliminated.
Having four men and four women in group of candidates gives each gender a fair shot at the job. While some characters behave in alignment with standard gender roles the women are portrayed as smart and strong as are the men. There is a fun moment when they are testing the lights and they use the heels of the women’s shoes to knock out a set of lights. White certainly asserts himself early as the dominant personality in the room but he is challenged by most of the other candidates. Brunette, Dark, and Blonde are all smart and resourceful, they all speak their mind and challenge the men throughout the exam process. Deaf is clearly the physically and emotionally weakest of the group. It is Blonde’s ability to ride the line between aggressive and observant that ultimately makes her the winning candidate.
The exam room, with its lack of rules or consequences, reveals the candidates’ truest natures. White, the “villain” of the film is out for himself and will do anything to get the job while just following the rules enough not to be eliminated. Black wants to work as a team to find the question. Brown is a gambler; he takes his chances but always has an eye on the odds and likes to win. Dark is a woman who has had to make it in a man’s world, she is poised and cool on the outside but compensates by cutting herself in her personal life. Brunette is a strong woman eager to prove her worth. Blonde skirts the line between White and Black, she’s out to prove her worth but is not willing to sacrifice others to win, she is the balance of ruthlessness and empathy that the Founder, Deaf, needs to fulfill the job. Deaf who started the exam with a bruised face had clearly been through several of these exam groups before was desperate for the right person to qualify for the job.
It makes you wonder what you would do in that position. If you were offered a job you would “kill for” and told you have eighty minutes to answer one question and there are no rules between you and the answer, where would you fall on the White to Black spectrum? I doubt any of us would truly know until we were put into that position. The real question is: would you play nice?