DIRECTED BY John Erick Dowdle
STARS Owen Wilson, Lake Bell
Maybe it’s because of personal experience that I’ve always been a sucker for political thrillers set in foreign lands. During my childhood, my family left Argentina at the start of the so-named “Dirty War” (when the government assassinated thousands of citizens who didn’t share its philosophies) and arrived in Kenya mere days after a failed coup (a mandated early curfew meant evenings were spent watching military vehicles patrol the empty streets from the safety of our hotel room).
Even the interim years in Portugal found my father, a Firestone plant manager, held hostage for several days at his place of employment.
These memories were brought to the surface during my viewing of No Escape, a harrowing drama set in an unidentified Asian country. Make no mistake: This new film isn’t nearly as complex as its predecessors in this subgenre, superb ‘80s films like The Killing Fields, Under Fire, Missing and Salvador.
And with its admittedly paranoid view of living abroad – the takeaway from the film is that Americans should never leave the U.S. but instead be content munching on Big Macs and watching Modern Family – it’s easy to understand why this movie is getting hammered in many quarters as offensive agitprop (a critic at the perennially reactionary Slant website predictably but hilariously opined that “The only way that this film could be any more racist is if the Dwyer family holed up with Lillian Gish and waited for the Klan to save them”). But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that No Escape works on a gut level – I haven’t seen a more intense motion picture during all of 2015.
Owen Wilson delivers a fine performance as Jack Dwyer, who arrives in this anonymous country (filming took place in Thailand) to help improve its waterworks situation. With him are his wife Annie (Lake Bell), who didn’t want to relocate in the first place, and their daughters Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare), who don’t care where they are as long as there’s a swimming pool nearby.
The Dwyers are barely settled into their hotel when a coup breaks out, with the revolutionaries gleefully slaughtering all opposition. Their greatest hatred, however, is reserved for foreigners – especially Americans – and they descend upon the hotel with the same determination as the Mexican troops attacking the Alamo.
The Dwyers spend the remainder of the movie always trying to, as Jack puts it, remain 10 steps ahead of their pursuers. Director John Erick Dowdle, who co-wrote the script with his brother Drew Dowdle, films all of their ensuing struggles with brute force, rarely shying away from the violence.
Exploitative? Maybe. Effective? Definitely.
The Dowdles try to stage this in a realistic fashion, doing their best to perpetually paint Jack as an ordinary guy who’s in over his head but uses it to get out of difficult situations – it’s a welcome change from the norm, which finds an Everyman suddenly turning into Superman at the drop of a hat.
The sibling filmmakers do offer a concession to the established template through the character of Hammond (an effective Pierce Brosnan), a British ex-pat who turns out to be much more than just a boozy womanizer.
Hammond demonstrates his action-hero chops at an early point, and we mark time until he returns in deus ex machina fashion at the critical moment when he’s most needed.
No Escape suffers from the usual decree that the problems of a few little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world – unless, of course, the little people are white and the crazy world is comprised of darker skinned individuals.
Indeed, the vast majority of the Asians are depicted as either soulless killers or complacent citizens, with not much in between (the major exception is Hammond’s best friend, winningly played by Sahajak Boonthanakit).
But at least the Dowdles acknowledge the reason for the discontent: As Hammond points out, the locals are outraged that an American corporation, in true fascist fashion, has through shady means been able to secure and control the nation’s water supply.
Xenophobic twits like Donald Trump will bristle at this anti-capitalist message, but more intelligent folks will once again realize that the United States’ claim of Manifest Destiny didn’t end with the acquisition of the West Coast.