Review of No Escape, Directed by John Erick Dowdle
I remember a friend recently remarking that for all of the progressive shifts and allegedly liberal bent of Hollywood these days, the traditional family unit remains an ideal, powerful bastion of love and intimacy in the stories we tell. Take No Escape, for example, the latest offering from writer and director John Erick Dowdle.
Its story is simple but riveting. Jack Dwyer (Own Wilson) has just moved his family to an unspecified country in Southeast Asia to take a job as an engineer for a company that will help improve the nation’s water infrastructure. Culture shock kicks in the moment they step off the plane, as this family of four from Texas gazes out on a new world that doesn’t share their language, customs, or many core values. We sense immediately that something is off. The company cab doesn’t arrive at the airport to pick them up. Their cellphone doesn’t work. Their hotel suite lacks TV reception and properly working electrical fixtures. Other than an unattended banner, no greeting or message from the company welcomes them.
The next morning, the world goes to hell. The president has been assassinated for striking an expensive deal with western foreigners to improve, and thus control, the nation’s water supply. Revolutionaries have risen up, clashing with authorities and throwing the nation into anarchy. The face of their ire is none other than Jack, the white man from the oppressive corporation. Mobs start murdering westerners and loyalist on the street, beating them to death, shooting them, even running them over with trucks. But the story isn’t about identity politics or capitalism or anything like that – the chaos is the backdrop. No Escape is about one man’s attempt to get his wife and two little girls out of an unfamiliar country that has turned against them. The ensuing action is brutal and intense.
At first it seemed like a weak point that the film did not specify the country in which the action is taking place. This is problematic from a storytelling perspective because generally the more specific you are about context the better. However in this case, the fact that we find ourselves in a “generic” unstable country sucks the viewer in to identify with its subjects, namely a father, mother, and their two young daughters (and perhaps it is a way to avoid making a distracting political statement). For all points and purposes, Jack doesn’t know where he is. He can’t understand what these people are saying or why they want to kill him. The place might as well not even have a name. He hasn’t been here 24 hours, doesn’t the lay of the land, and doesn’t know the social and political climate. Within his severely limited knowledge base, there truly is no escape.
Those who have traveled internationally (especially the first few times) can probably relate to the feeling of alienation, being outside one’s cultural context with no clear sense of direction or channels of communication with the rest of the world. Perhaps you thought just how easily things could go really bad if you somehow got separated from your group or had your wallet stolen or something. No Escape is the worst of all of those fears realized.
The film is full of horrors – rampant killings, rape, lawlessness, violence. But the thing that kept my heart pounding is that Wilson has to endure them all with his wife Annie and two young daughters, all of which are three-dimensional, fleshed-out characters. This means that his daughter’s lost stuffed animal is as much a concern as the bullets ricocheting overhead. When one of them says she has to go potty, her tiny, irrelevant need must be tended to along with figuring out a route to the U.S. embassy. He doesn’t merely have to jump from one building to another to flee death, he has to throw his daughters across too, even as they beg him not to and cling to his side. When his wife nearly gets raped, their daughters are hiding just a few feet away, witnessing it all. When he kills a man by bashing his head in to defend his family, his wife watches it happen, sickened but not opposed to the deed.
The result is a powerful, realistic story of how a man steps up to lead and comfort his family through a trial that we pray no family ever experiences. In a refreshing change of pace for action films, he isn’t an idealized action hero single-handedly knocking out bad guys with precise gunshots and well-struck punches and kicks. It takes the heroic strength of his wife rising to the challenge (and a handful of cinematic lucky breaks) to prove the film’s title a misnomer.