No Escape features Owen Wilson as Jack Dwyer, an all-American father and civil engineer uprooting his milquetoast family from Texas and moving them all to an undisclosed country in South East Asia. But when this generic Asian country suddenly finds itself in the middle of a violent political coup, our quartet of equally generic protagonists will have to flee from one lackluster set piece after the next if they hope to survive.
CYNICAL, BUT APT
No Escape, from director and co-writer John Eric Dowdle, can cynically be summed up as white Americans running in fear from savage brown people. Objectively, it really doesn’t have much else to say.
The movie is shot well. The action is serviceable to the plot with only a few scenes feeling like filler. The characters and their actors fulfill their roles well enough, hitting their marks and delivering their dialog. And that’s about the extent of the movie–it’s functional in all the ways a movie should function on a purely mechanical level. All the parts that need to move, do. It even looks and sounds the way a movie should look and sound.
The problem, however, is that there’s no reason to care about any of it.
Now, plenty of things happen in the movie that are of some interest. Characters at ground-zero of a violent coup should, after all, lead to all sorts of heart-pounding action, tense thrills, and even some insight into the nature of people when chaos forces them to forgo civilized ideas and behaviors in favor of pure survival instinct. And while there is plenty of action and thrills, they’re not exactly heart-pounding or remotely tense much of the time. Because for a movie that’s supposedly all about survival, No Escape never makes it feel like the family’s lives are ever really in danger. Instead, it’s as if they, like us, are just along for the ride. Like we’re all occupying the same boat on some twisted yet wholly harmless theme park ride.
Yes, characters get hurt. Yes, we watch people get brutally killed in the streets. But the family always comes out fine in the end. And no matter how many set pieces you have–no matter how many times you put the family in danger–no matter how many background characters are maimed or killed–all that effort is rendered pointless if every instance of potential conflict is constantly, repeatedly proven to be an empty threat.
THE CRAFT OF THE STORY
Storytelling is all about the relationship between the work and the audience. The audience is aware what they’re watching is a fiction of sorts. There’s a certain psychology required to maintain their suspension of disbelief, to keep the audience engaged with what they’re seeing despite knowing that, ultimately, none of it really matters. And part of that is establishing and maintaining a few basic rules.
In the case of No Escape, it would be important for Dowdle to regularly reinforce the danger present in the movie. If the entire country is either killing or being killed, then the Dwyer family also needs to be actively dealing with such things often enough. Characters need to be hurt. Characters have to make difficult choices. The threat of death has to persist until the final moments. Because if their escape is a foregone conclusion, why are we even watching? We’re supposed to hope that everyone makes it out alive and in one piece, but also not be entirely sure that will actually happen.
But because Dowdle never maintains any semblance of pressure, never puts the characters through their paces, he ultimately undercuts the movie’s entire premise. And thus, the 100 minutes spent with the movie are as pointless as its closing scene.
MATTER OF TACT
Of course, none of this even comes to close to touching upon the glaring tactlessness of Dowdle’s handling of the film’s socio-political themes. It’s bad enough that the movie features a white, all-American family struggling to survive in a violent, foreign land filled almost exclusively with violent savages. It’s even worse that that closest thing this movie has to a heroic savior is Pierce Brosnan. But the most damning thing about the movie is that its setting is so utterly pointless. You can replace coup with zombie uprising and East Asia with American Midwest without significantly altering the way the movie plays out.
At best, the movie is insensitive and maybe even unintentionally racist on some shallow level. At worst, it was intentional. And regardless if Dowdle was commenting on or attempting to highlight some real-world issue, all he really managed to do was make a boring movie that screams “White Americans are victims” and “Foreigners are dangerous” for the better part of two hours.
THE END OF IT
Those looking for an exciting movie are bound to be left disappointed. Those looking for depth in character and story are going to be bored to tears. If the final result weren’t so unbelievably lazy, No Escape might come across as something more than a shallow analogy for American views on society and race. But as it is–shallow, pointless, and stupidly insensitive–No Escape is also a NO CHILL.