No Escape is the sort of mindless fodder that somehow works best in these late summer months. Perhaps it has something to do with the brain-frying effects of spending several months staring at screens witnessing round after round of city crumbling, earth shattering, mind numbing action that so entrenches itself in mid-year box offices. By late August, we’ve all grown weary of these sights, but still we hunger for more. It’s a sort of stepping stone to ween us off from the destruction porn opiates that plague the summer and ease us into the relatively low key autumn months. It does its job well-enough while you’re seeing it, and then fades quickly into the background.
The film casts Owen Wilson in the unlikely role of an action hero, something he’s tried before, most notably with 2001’s Behind Enemy Lines, without much success. He holds in own well enough in No Escape, playing the dunderheaded Jack Dwyer, a man who uprooted his family—wife Annie (Lake Bell), and daughters Beeze and Lucy (Claire Geare and Sterling Jerins)—from the safe confines of Austin, Texas and moved to Thailand to take a job as a manager for a firm charged with controlling and cleaning the water supply of the country. Hours after their arrival, the natives stage a coup against the regime controlling the nation fueled, in part, by outrage over an American corporation taking over the nation’s water. Now, the Dwyers find themselves targets of a bloodthirsty mob and must act fast to find safe haven.
No Escape works best if you think of it less as a thriller and more as a horror. It is, perhaps, a new subgenre I’ve come to think of as geo-political horror—in a way, the faceless mob chasing the Dwyers through the streets reminded me of a masked psychopath from the slasher greats of yore. We know about as much of the mob as we ever do of, say, Jason Vorhees, and the effects are more or less similar. Bodies are hacked apart, innocents are terrorized, and nothing can stop the onslaught.
The Dwyers, then, collectively inhabit the role of “the final girl” long after other ex-pats and co-managers have been executed. It is only by virtue of their high caliber (in this case, read: American) values that the family has any hope of escape or survival, even as the deadly killer stalks them without rest or fail throughout the movie. As far as faceless killers in horror movies go, the mob in No Escape is not ineffective. There are moments of genuine terror and dread that work surprisingly well for a movie as unassuming as No Escape and should be enough to sate the palate of horror veterans.
However, I was left with the notion that some of the thrills and moments of terror were achieved cheaply, shortcutting the horror using child endangerment and a particularly brutal and hard to watch attempted rape as a means to incite dread without really worrying about character or development. It felt like an emotionally manipulative approach to eliciting fear—I don’t want to see a child put in danger any more than I wish to see a woman raped, so of course I felt horror and disgust in these moments, despite the fact that I had no real connection to the woman or children involved. In this sense, the horror felt undeserved even despite the fact that the horror was justified.
It’s a problem with the script, which never seems to figure out what, exactly, it’s trying to be. Written by brothers John Erick Dowdle (who also directs) and Drew Dowdle, who made their names with Quarantine, Devil, and As Above So Below, the script plays at high concepts—international intrigue, negative effects of corporatization, the pushback against Americanization—without ever really exploring them. Everything about No Escape feels like a good idea that deserves more time and nuance than it was given.
Wilson and Bell do a decent enough job in their starring roles, even if Wilson was a tad unbelievable. To me, Wilson is best in dead pan roles, and his presence was a bit distracting to the overall narrative—I couldn’t help but wonder if the role wouldn’t be better served with a no name. Pierce Brosnan has a surprisingly charming, if somewhat predictable, role as experienced ex-pat Hammond, to whom the Dwyers turn when their new world crumbles. His presence brings an air of authenticity owed to Brosnan’s trademarked Swagger, a remnant, no doubt, from his days as Bond.
Overall, No Escape is a mostly watchable, somewhat forgettable late-summer action flick. Its horror undertones are stifled somewhat, but they’re there and they make the movie better than it could’ve been. Still, the themes explored in this movie are worth better than they’ve been giving. While No Escape will satisfy aficionados of terror with its brutal violence and tense, white-knuckle action, that’s not enough to delve deeply into the complex issues hinted at in the narrative. That’s a shame, really; as bad as it could’ve been, it should’ve been a whole lot better.
No Escape is now playing in theaters everywhere.