If J.A. Bayona’s survival epic “The Impossible” seemed a bit callous in suggesting that the chief victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami were those well-to-do Westerners who chose the wrong week for a Thai holiday, it still looks like a model of human compassion and ethnic sensitivity next to “No Escape.” This latest thriller from director/co-writer John Erick Dowdle (“Devil,” “As Above, So Below”) is a technically accomplished, morally rank slab of cultural exploitation about an American family caught up in a violent uprising in an anonymous Southeast Asian country — one whose dark-skinned natives are on hand to kill and be killed, but who could otherwise scarcely be of less dramatic concern or interest to those behind the camera. Grittily propulsive filmmaking and solid performances from Owen Wilson and Lake Bell aside, there’s no escaping the movie’s hand-wringing manipulations and pandering sense of privilege — which might, of course, be precisely what it takes to encourage decent niche returns for this Aug. 26 Weinstein Co. release.
This is neither the first nor the last time Hollywood has tackled Third World chaos from a First World perspective, turning a far-flung (and fictionalized) national trauma into a movie on that most important and universally relatable of subjects, the sufferings of good-looking, well-meaning white people. Yet the picture’s refusal to specify exactly where its events are taking place, or to clarify the nature of its central conflict, feels like a particularly craven copout under the circumstances. Originally titled “The Coup,” “No Escape” began shooting on location in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 2013, amid an escalating political crisis that would lead to the country’s military insurrection in 2014; the recent deadly bombing of a religious shrine in Bangkok is merely one in a horrific series of violent episodes that have erupted since. Taking pains to avoid any similarities between life and art (if that’s the word), the director and his brother/producer/co-writer, Drew Dowdle, have removed any and all references to Thailand, steering clear of anything that would project a negative image of the country where they shot (and where, despite online rumors of a ban, the film is set to open theatrically in September).
And what do specifics matter, anyway? After all, the script (faintly inspired by a non-life-threatening trip that John Eric Dowdle took to Thailand in 2006, shortly after a military coup) is banking on an audience willing to identify solely and completely with the characters’ fish-out-of-water confusion. Wilson plays Jack Dwyer, a businessman from Austin, Texas, who has taken a last-resort job in Southeast Asia with some soulless bastion of American capitalism, under the naive assumption that the company will be improving water quality in the region. Not long after he arrives with his patient but anxious wife, Annie (Bell), and their young daughters Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare), Jack finds himself on the sidelines of a street conflict between Molotov-cocktail-wielding protesters and police officers, their riot shields marked with upside-down Cambodian letters that further frustrate any sense of the movie’s geography.
Frightened and uncomprehending, Jack makes his way back to his wife and kids at the hotel, which is in a state of violent siege: Ordered to kill any foreigners they come across, the armed rebels go from room to room and making quick, vicious hackwork of the guests. Amid lots of quick cutaways to nameless, faceless corpses, Jack and his family somehow climb their way to the hotel roof, where they and other survivors enjoy a brief respite from the horrors unfolding below. In short order, however, the Dwyers will be forced to defy the movie’s title and make a hasty exit, sustaining injuries and earning a few unintended laughs along the way. Dowdle is hardly the first director to make the mistake of applying slow-motion when it would be better to keep the action moving too quickly for viewers to get their bearings, or think too hard about what they’re watching.
Indeed, not thinking is perhaps the best way to approach “No Escape,” which unfolds in a key of panic, terror and emotional extremity over the course of an exhausting 102 minutes. For an audience willing to suspend disbelief and temporarily adopt the movie’s blinkered perspective, it’s easy enough to feel gripped by the Dwyers’ nightmarish ordeal on a moment-to-moment basis, aided by the jittery physicality of the filmmaking and the actors’ unswerving commitment to the material. As a man who puts his family in harm’s way yet makes up for it in fierce protectiveness and self-sacrifice, Wilson isn’t playing against type so much as against genre, and his goofball-everyman persona works well enough in this disorienting context. Bell, similarly known for her comedic chops (“In a World … ,” “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp”), is even better in a performance whose elemental display of maternal ferocity may occasionally remind you of Naomi Watts in “The Impossible.”
It must be said that the Dwyer daughters, through no fault of the fine young actresses portraying them, don’t always elicit the same level of concern from the audience. The girls’ frequent protests (“I’m hungry,” “I have to go potty”) are a necessary reminder that kids remain kids, even in times of crisis, yet they also give unintended voice to the profound cluelessness — the childishness, even — of the story’s worldview. And the film itself, for all its pretensions to realism, runs more and more off the rails as it keeps yanking the characters out of hiding and thrusting them in harm’s way. It’s a strategy that increasingly depends on our seeing the locals as little more than knife-wielding, rape-threatening savages, to which the only reasonable response is to question the sadism of those behind the camera.
Which is not to imply that “No Escape” is entirely devoid of a social conscience. At a certain point, Pierce Brosnan turns up in a grizzled beard and a tropical shirt, like a James Bond who’s come out of retirement, to protect the Dwyers and kick a few rebel butts. But his real job, where the audience is concerned, is to unpack the moral, political and economic consequences of Western imperialism and the role that he played in turning Thailand — sorry, whatever it’s called — into a frenzied hotbed of violence and revolution. “Guys like me pave the way for guys like you,” he tells Jack with grim finality, utterly oblivious to the possibility that the movie he’s appearing in might be part of the problem.