As I sat riveted into my chair, straining against the invisible tethers which kept me locked in position, able only to bite my fingernails down to absolute nothingness, a part of me wondered… “Am I an asshole?”
Let’s back up. I was in a movie theater watching No Escape, the latest film from The Brothers Dowdle, with the same title as a 1994 sci-fi thriller starring Ray Liotta. And although I liked the Brothers Dowdle’s previous film (As Above So Below) and I thought the cast for their latest film was pretty great (Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan), I mostly expected to spend the entire running time wondering why this movie wasn’t called Lee Daniels’ No Escape and enjoying a refreshing soda.
Instead, I was rapt with intense engagement. Pick a cliché – pulse-pounding, edge of your seat, etc. – and No Escape is it. The Brothers Dowdle have crafted a disturbing political thriller that swiftly segues into total horror territory, in which a typical American family is forced to do despicable things in order to survive a sudden and violent coup d’état in an unnamed foreign country. Their isolation and terror is infectious, their desperation palpable, and their situation engaging – and enraging – as hell.
The Weinstein Company
And yet… and yet… as you watch this very white family struggle to fight back hordes of murderous foreigners who just want to protect their own country from American capitalist interests, and as you find yourself guided by skilled craftspeople into only cheering for the white folks, you can’t help but wonder: “Am I an asshole?”
As a political thriller, No Escape isn’t a clever motion picture. It barely touches upon the larger social and governmental ramifications of the deadly conflict brewing in [insert country here]. The family we follow as they struggle evade protestors mid-riot have nothing to do with the greater cause of the revolution, other than that they have become symbols for American greed. They are only attacked because they activate inherent xenophobia, which we eventually learn has some basis in rational political observation, but which has now been taken to brutal extremes.
But then we have the very simple fact that for American audiences, No Escape plays off of a mirror-image xenophobia, that of Americans visiting unusual lands, surrounding by cultures full of differing ideas and values. Annie Dwyer (Lake Bell) even brings her own, American rice cooker, despite her husband’s protests that in Asia they do in fact have rice. What is familiar is comforting; what is unfamiliar is scary, despite any and all of the logical reasons we have to believe otherwise.
The Weinstein Company
No Escape is simple and knee-jerk and disturbing, whether you take the film at face value (a group of Americans afraid of a whole country) or as a cautionary tale (maybe we deserve this, etc.). The film doesn’t operate very well as a meaningful social or political statement but it operates brilliantly as a thriller, building suspense by capitalizing on the terrible thoughts most humans have, but that we struggle to fight against by defining them – accurately – as irrational, phobic or just plain ugly.
Because in a vacuum, what The Brothers Dowdle have produced here is a taut and exciting potboiler, which thrusts likable protagonists into an impossible situation and makes their situation harder and harder and harder until escape genuinely does seem out of the question. You could replace the context of the film, the coup d’état, with zombies or aliens and it would have very much the same inherent suspenseful effect. No Escape is, in function if not by design, one of the best horror movies of the year.
And yes, that does seem troubling, because the implication is that if the throng of violent protestors could be replaced by inhuman creatures, then maybe those human beings are being equated to such demons. Fortunately function is not the same as form, and just because they could theoretically be zombies doesn’t mean The Brothers Dowdle treated them as such. Not every person in [insert country here] is a killer; some of them are clearly conscientious objectors or at least too scared by the mob mentality to put their own lives and families in the crosshairs by speaking out. They can only rebel against the flood of violence if they can do so without being caught or accused of sympathy.
It’s a nerve-racking situation on all sides, punctuated by intense set pieces which put children in danger and put our hard-won sensibilities into question. If the difficult and challenging nature of the concept bothers you, and you worry that No Escape exploits our phobias about “the other,” whomever they may be, and America’s tenuous reputation on the current world stage… well, that may be the point. No Escape doesn’t mollycoddle and it doesn’t apologize, it just takes our anxieties – direct, indirect and in between – and lays them bare, exposing a raw nerve and poking at it with disturbing precision. It may be vicious, and it may be uncomfortable, but it is undeniably intense.
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.