One long striptease of a film, except what is being revealed isn't alluring at all. These clubs are wells of loneliness, and Exotica is about putting that pain and neurosis on display. The film begins with the command to observe people closely – this is a customs official at an airport instructing a newbie, but the lesson is actually for the audience. We are here to furret out what the characters we meet are hiding.
The task is complicated by the fact that all of them are friendless – some are dealing with loss, others have never been able to adjust to society. And so conversation is inevitably guarded and stilted. In the most explicit description of this unmoored kind of existence, a character talks about a constant state of tension between himself and others. He doesn't try to overcome it anymore. It's just something you get used to and live with.
The film loops in the owner of an exotic petshop who is somewhat peripheral to the slowly unfolding story, but serves to mirror and comment on the proprietors of the stripclub. Both establishments are inherited – the current owners never managing to step out of their parents' shadow. The dancers are associated with exotic animals put up for sale, and the film makes the point that they are for entertainment, not healing. Except the latter is what the characters really need.
Atom Egoyan seems to be interested in the ways people cope with trauma – particularly the idiosyncratic crutches they lean on to process it, even if to the outside observer the behaviour looks strange or deviant. The film seems to suggest that the protagonist doesn't go to the stripclub for a sexual thrill at all – although you can interpret this more unkindly if you so wish. The petshop owner has his own strange way to spend his evenings, and they are mostly for the purposes of hooking up. But the film is asking us to dig a little deeper, and try to accept the way people choose to deal with their problems, even if they seem unsatisfactory at first glance.
There are several layers of meaning in the line "it's a jungle out there" – which gets muttered as one of the characters is leaving the petshop. It underlines a feeling of detachment and alienation from others. But if we are to associate the shop with the nightclub, it also suggests that these places are havens where the hostility of the outside world is tamed. For those that find sex or relationships impossible, Exotica a sanctuary.
I think Egoyan presents all this rather uncritically – he might think that this is where the characters should end up. I'm not sure that's a good lesson to draw, however. The film presents a torturous path to overcoming trauma – one that comes very close to inflicting more hurt and death on people. There is also something about the main character (a white middle class guy) doling out cash to young women in order to work through his issues that feels a bit cringe. The power to weave the fantasy you need to keep going is granted to those who can pay for it, and we get very little insight into the history and desires of the women who provide these services – until the very last moments of the film, that is.