The practice of ‘suicide tourism’ by which terminally ill individuals go to countries where assisted suicide is legal in a bid to end their lives on their own terms is quite plainly a controversial topic. With fair points on either side of the debate: bodily autonomy and dignity in death on one hand and a disdain for disabled people on the other, it is a loaded topic for any filmmaker to take on.
Enter Jonas Alexander Arnby, director of Exit Plan (previously named Suicide Tourist). The film follows the life of Max (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), an insurance investigator dealing with the diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumour. His sleep, mood and daily reminders all monitored by an AI on his phone, Arnby’s world of medical sophistication is immediately cold and distancing.
Max’s relationship with wife Lærke (Tuva Novotny) is anything but. Loaded with absolute admiration and affection, Lærke dotes on Max like the ideal, loving wife— which is what makes Max’s decision to hide his diagnosis from her even harder, his idea of suicide even more so. This is not a film for anyone with mental health problems or suicidal ideation to watch, Max’s suicide attempts are bleak and grey and each obviously fail.
The film flits around in a non-chronological fashion with snippets of Max and Lærke’s relationship, his mental breaks due to the tumour and his discovery of a mysterious hotel called The Aurora where people can go to die. It is his job as an insurance investigator that leads him to discover the Aurora, as a client’s father has vanished— supposedly at the hotel, and without confirmation of his death the insurance cannot pay out.
This is the strange territory that Exit Plan plays in; a layer of mystery and a borderline amateur cop investigation from Max is muddled in with his tragic story of how to deal with his own declining health. Max checks into the Aurora as a patient— signing away his ability to check out alive also (super sinister)— and is quickly ran through some boujie burial options and death ‘fantasies’ he can pick from. The idyllic Scandinavian mountains are a cold and beautiful background shot to absolute perfection by Niels Thastum and Max spends much of his time mooching around this natural landscape and modern hotel encountering various other patients and the odd suspicious goings-on.
It’s an enveloping environment, and Arnby crafts it with a crisp mood of unease; but the mood rarely amounts to any action. Poising itself as part sinister mystery and part heartfelt drama, Exit Plan tiptoes the lines of each with no commitment, leaving a wholly unsatisfying finale. The suspicion within the hotel and its treatment of patients is not propelled forward, instead feeling draining. The promise of ‘mystery’ will ultimately be what draws any audience to Arnby’s film, and yet it is the one thing it never fully delivers.
In the beginning of the film Max is prone to mental breaks and blackouts, these episodes continue in much the same fashion throughout the film, lending itself to the films mixed up and often ‘is this real at all?’ structure. But because Max’s condition never seems to worsen there is no acceleration in the film, no race against time to either uncover the mystery or die, and no momentum to propel the films bleak monotony.
What Arnby delivers is an utterly strange piece of work, helped largely by its staggeringly confusing finale but also its inability to really tackle the topic at hand. Some may consider the film to be subjective in its handling of assisted suicide— and in many moments Max’s struggle does feel heartfelt thanks to the handling of him and Lærke’s relationship— because of the intentional lack of judgement against Max’s decisions. However due to the way that a thinly veiled suspense plot is wormed into the story, it all seems like a big game. Though impeccable in its audio-visual executions, Exit Plan sits too much on the fence of such an essential and contemporary taboo.
Exit Plan will be released in select cinemas and VOD on June 12th
by Chloe Leeson
Chloë (she/her) is the founder of SQ. She is a costume designer and trainee teacher living in the North East of England. She thrives watching 90s Harmony Korine Letterman interviews and bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. Find her on Twitter @sqchloe and on Letterboxd here.