No Escape shows why zombies and aliens aren’t just popular antagonistic forces in films; they’re necessary. We need a supernatural force because when you try to go realistic, as John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle attempt to do in their new movie, you come away with an action film that’s incredibly uncomfortable in how it dehumanizes an entire race just so it can derive some more drama for its imperiled white protagonists. The Dowdles do have some chops when it comes to choreographing action, but the thrills are constantly undermined by the raging xenophobia that runs throughout the picture. Even removed from the racist undertones, the film stumbles on moments that are unintentionally comic or painfully predictable. Less than halfway through, the title feels like a punishment than an assessment of the characters’ predicament.
Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) has landed a job in an unnamed Southeast Asian country and brought along his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and their daughters Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare). On the plane ride over, they meet the debonair but slightly unsavory Hammond (Pierce Brosnan) who gives them some tips on how to survive their new homeland. However, he neglects to inform them that the country is on the brink of civil war, and while Jack is out trying to find a newspaper, he gets caught in upheaval. He manages to race back to the hotel and reunite with his family, and together the Dwyers must figure out how to survive the rampaging horde of angry [Unnamed Southeast Asian Country]-ians.
The fact that the script goes out of its way to avoid naming a particular country only makes the movie more offensive because it homogenizes the region. Rather than just offend Cambodia or Laos (we learn later in the movie Vietnam is on the other side of the river, so it has to be one of these two countries), it offends both as well as the entire race and region, who are never depicted as anything other than a gang of bloodthirsty murderers and rapists. The only “good” citizen of this unnamed country is Hammond’s extremely Americanized pal, “Kenny Rogers” (Sahajak Boonthanakit). Pretty much everyone else who isn’t a machete-wielding maniac is cannon fodder, and they’re useful only for how they can protect the Dwyers. I don’t want to go so far to say that No Escape thinks that the only good Asian is a dead Asian, but the Dwyers manage to survive at one point by literally hiding behind a dead Asian man’s body and then are able to sneak around using the clothes they pulled off dead Asians.
It’s a gross movie that only becomes more grotesque as it goes along, and it’s a shame not only because of its rampant xenophobia and how it plays into the worst fears of every white middle-class person who spits out the phrase “third-world” (Annie even clarifies for us that they’re in the “fourth-world” because not all the light switches in their hotel room work), but because the filmmakers have some chops when it comes to directing action. If you replace people with zombies in this movie, you’d have a fairly terrifying action-horror flick. The Dowdles occasionally make good use tight spaces and quick cutting, although they’re just as liable to make the action incomprehensible. Ultimately, whenever they do tap into the fear, it’s in the most ugly manner possible, and the only reprieve is stumbling upon something unintentionally hilarious like Owen Wilson chucking a small child off of a rooftop.
Granted, giving his antagonist horde agency and discernment makes them more terrifying, but it feels like the only reason they’re not aliens or zombies is because they need to fire guns or attempt to rape women. The movie makes a half-hearted apology about how this is truly all the fault of Western corporations who have exploited this kind of underdeveloped country, but we don’t see that corporation. We just see the sadistic rebels and the hapless white family who didn’t want any part of this catastrophe. It’s also worth noting that this devastation is only from the perspective of the Dwyers, thus further dehumanizing any non-White person in the story.
No Escape is horrific, but for all the wrong reasons. It taps into its audience’s most despicable fears and wants the reality of the situation but is too feckless to even name its setting. The film discards realism when its inconvenient or confrontational, but relishes it when it can create a harsher, more revolting picture. The tagline may as well be “When Bad Things Happen to White People,” and No Escape unthinkingly devolves into predictable situations that disrespect everyone involved in more ways than one.