UK Release Date: 4th September 2015
Runtime: 103 minutes
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Writer: John Erick Dowdle, Drew Dowdle
Starring: Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan, Sterling Jerins, Claire Geare, Sahajak Boonthanakit
Synopsis: A wealthy American family must fight for their lives when they become embroiled in a violent Asian coup led by a band of merciless rebels.
There’s a long tradition in cinema of casting comedic actors in dramatic roles to great effect. From Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Robin Williams in One Hour Photo, and most recently Steve Carell in Foxcatcher, the casting tactic has proved successful. Horror specialists the Dowdle Brothers hoped to utilise that technique to give tense thriller No Escape a boost and, for the most part, they succeeded.
Jack (Owen Wilson) has secured a job for an American engineering firm in South East Asia, relocating his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and two daughters (Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare) to the country. After meeting British expat Hammond (Pierce Brosnan) at the airport, the family becomes embroiled in a bloody coup against the leadership, with the violent rebels targeting foreigners.
The Dowdle Brothers’ speciality lies in conjuring up tense, suspenseful cinema and, in that respect, No Escape absolutely delivers. The slimline plotting and simplicity of the premise allows the focus to lie squarely on building genuine tension, aided by a substantial mean streak that creates a constant nagging doubt as to whether the central characters are going to get out alive.
| “There’s like a war going on out there… and they’re killing foreigners.”
Unfortunately, this deliberately threadbare plotting has a pretty enormous side effect. By pitting an innocent family of white Americans against a series of anonymous, bloodthirsty Asians, the film creates an unpleasant whiff of lazy racism. The audience is never given anything more than a cursory explanation as to the motives of the rebels, leaving us with a disappointingly old-fashioned tale of white skin good, anything else evil.
The Dowdles do, however, benefit from coaxing strong performances out of the two lead performers in No Escape. Owen Wilson’s everyman persona makes him easy to like and identify with here, whereas Lake Bell is defiant enough to avoid the “wife in distress” trope. Even the two child actors, who could easily have become screeching clichés, do a solid job, making one climactic scene in particular a genuinely tense and shocking moment.
Bizarre choices, though, often derail the film. Pierce Brosnan, starring as a slightly sleazy Brit with an interesting past, appears at random when the narrative needs a get-out clause and growls jokes whilst wielding a gun. His entire character is presumably intended as a sly wink to his Bond past, but it never quite gels with the considerably more relatable family in peril story arc.
| “We’ve got to keep putting ten steps between us and them.”
No Escape is at its best when it simply focuses on the family and their continued near-misses with heavily armed militias. It’s in this claustrophobic, tense world that the Dowdles excel, given that they refuse to provide ample explanation of the reasons behind the central uprising. It’s by virtue of the immensely talented cast that the film emerges from its own poor writing relatively unscathed.
Pop or Poop?
Owen Wilson and Lake Bell shine in a diversion from their typically comedic personas. It’s just a shame that the rest of No Escape is so packed with flaws, amid an alarmingly xenophobic story premise.
John Erick Dowdle’s direction is a lot stronger than the script he co-wrote with brother Drew and, as a result, No Escape soars when it leans on dark tension, but suffers when it decides to try to fill in its multitude of storytelling gaps.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.