NO ESCAPE Movie Review – White People, Our Greatest Natural Resource
White people may not be on the menu (at least as far as we can tell, but you never really know), but they are on the endangered list in John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle’s (As Above, So Below, Quarantine, Devil) reactionary, regressive, xenophobic No Escape, a cringe-inducing, unappetizing “Save the white people from savage, brown-skinned hordes” throwback to the Golden Era of Hollywood Racism (i.e., the last century), an unintentional reflection perhaps of the fear-driven, nativist agenda of a certain, right-leaning, national political party, that the studio wisely — but apparently not too wisely, since some pinstriped suit in an air-conditioned, shag-rug carpeted office approved funding — relegated to the last week of August, the proverbial dumping ground for also-rans (or never was’es) before “adult,” character-driven, period-set dramas make their annual comeback, Oscar season gets into full swing, and summer blockbusters fade into the background.
When we first meet family man and future (running) action hero, Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson), he’s enjoying the last few moments of comfort onboard a jetliner with his wife, Annie (Lake Bell), and their two daughters, Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare). Within hours, Jack and his family land in an unnamed, Southeast Asian country (actually Thailand) bordering Vietnam. A onetime (thus, failed) entrepreneur, Jack has accepted an offer to work for a multinational corporation with a close working relationship with the unnamed Southeast Asian country’s dictator, but when a successful coup leaves the dictator dead, the country free dives into total chaos, with Americans/foreigners targeted as dual representatives of Western imperialism and the fallen government’s failed, corrupt policies. Jack also represents the American abroad, blithely ignorant of the world around him, including his new company’s actual policies and practices and why the coup’s supporters would target the company’s foreign representatives, unaware of his privileged, entitled position, and, at least at first, a passive, reactive observer.
Jack manages to escape one of the first violent confrontations between riot police and armed demonstrators, proving his “clean conscience” bonafides by saving a woman and her child from injury (they’re never seen again), before narrowly rescuing his family from certain death. As angry demonstrators gather around their hotel, every avenue of escape seems closed until Jack, newly imbued with nearly superhuman powers of instant decision-making, decides to throw his daughter from the roof of the hotel to a nearby building (don’t worry, Annie’s there to soften their respective landings). As perfectly calibrated for tension or suspense as any action film this summer, it’s also one of the most memorable, likely to be remembered as No Escape’s signature set piece, though to be fair, practically every other scene involves Jack and his family running or Jack slipping into stealth mode to determine the relative merits of a particular situation before more running (and even more running).
Along the way, Jack meets an overly friendly Brit, Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), a long-time ex-pat who enjoys consuming mass quantities of alcohol, and, in a rote, predictable plot turn what or he sees. In the Dowdle brothers’ screenplay, Hammond functions as the save-the-day/night cavalry, all-around deus ex machina, and polemical/political mouthpiece. In a late-film monologue, Hammond firmly — and probably accurately — places the coup and its anti-foreign aftermath at the virtual hands of meddling Western governments and the rapacious multinational governments they support and promote outside Europe and North America. But it’s really too little, too late. The Dowdle brothers want it both ways: They want to tell a relatively straightforward “survival horror” (minus World War Z-style zombies and Brad Pitt, plus brown-skinned hordes and Owen Wilson), add one or two dollops of vaguely worded political commentary, and expect audiences to ignore No Escape’s racist, reactionary, xenophobic subtext/text.
As long as the Dowdle brothers deliver the action-oriented goods, escapist-minded moviegoers certainly won’t care, but they should. Just because you watch a film non-critically and take in surface-level pleasures doesn’t mean you should (the opposite, actually). Engaging critically doesn’t necessarily mean disengaging viscerally or emotionally (they’re not mutually exclusive, after all). And if we engage with No Escape critically, there’s simply no way to avoid its regressive, retrograde non-development of anyone outside the central Anglo cast and a loyal local who calls himself Kenny Rogers (Sahajak Boonthanakit), an expression of his non-ironic love of the American country-western singer. It’s probably meant ironically, however, that ultimate safety and sanctuary lies not with the American Embassy in the still unnamed Southeast Asian country (Thailand, as mentioned earlier, to be more accurate, the Dowdle brothers shot No Escape in Thailand), but in our former enemies, the Vietnamese (they’ve come around to American capitalist ways apparently).