Set among the isolated forests and fjords of Norway circa 1360, “Escape” is a simple but adrenaline-fueled survival tale. Working with a modest budget and strong distaff talent (including a rare femme antagonist), Norwegian helmer Roar Uthaug (“Cold Prey”) displays an impressively muscular directing style and an instinct for exploiting primal natural locations in this genre-tweaking actioner. Entertainment One took North American rights for this lean, highly cinematic actioner and released it direct to ancillary; curious genre fans will find plenty to like.
As Uthaug envisions it, life in the Middle Ages is nasty, brutish and short. Not long after the opening titles inform us that the Black Death has killed half the population and lawlessness reigns over the countryside, teen heroine Signe (Isabel Christine Andreasen) watches helplessly as her parents and younger brother are murdered by a band of feral outlaws. The lascivious bandits are ready to rape Signe and slit her throat, but her life and virtue receive a temporary reprieve from the group’s coolly commanding female leader, Dagmar (a spooky-looking Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Uthaug’s “Cold Prey” star).
At the bandits’ camp, Signe learns that Dagmar plans to use her to breed a baby sister for Frigg (Milla Olin), the shy, refined young girl she treats as a daughter. But it soon becomes clear to Signe as well as to viewers that Frigg doesn’t belong to this bandit clan, since she displays compassion for the captive and distaste for the violence that surrounds her. When Frigg helps Signe to escape, the stage is set for action, setting several tense chase sequences in motion as the girls flee through the spectacular wild landscape.
A brief interlude in the home of a friendly farmer provides some clues into the backstories of Dagmar and Frigg, as well as a chance for Signe to gain new skills and become more aware of those she already has. But as in all good action films, the respite is only temporary.
Genre-savvy scribe Thomas Moldestad (who wrote both of Uthaug’s previous features as well as well as comedies and detective dramas) gives his screenplay some depth by showing how both femme leads are haunted by family members they failed to protect; he also taps into the classic dramatic faceoff between civilization and savagery. Nevertheless, further development of the relationship between Dagmar and her favorite marauder, Arvild (chisled Tobias Santelmann, “Kon Tiki”), would have been welcome.
Moldestad and Uthaug are clearly conscious of the similarity between their story and certain Westerns, and find visual equivalents that reinforce the connection, from Signe’s family’s covered wagon to the teepee-like structures in the outlaw camp to the secluded farmhouse that the bandits besiege. The lensing by ace d.p. John Christian Rosenlund (“The Bothersome Man,” “O’Horten”) also strengthens this link with menacing shots of the high mountains where hidden danger lurks.
Less-is-more thesping pivots on the actors’ physical presence and sheer physicality, with the formidable Bolso Berdal a standout. Apart from a few fleetingly glimpsed anachronisms, the (increasingly grimy) costumes and production design feel right.
The propulsive electronica score by Uthuag’s longtime collaborator Magnus Beite is highly suited to the action, while breathless cutting by Christian Siebenherz keeps the mayhem always from Signe’s perspective, never venturing into torture-porn territory. Special effects are seamless.