No Escape is a thriller set in an Asian country so unstable it doesn’t even have a name. The extent to which the film cares at all for the actual citizenry of that nation is sharply delineated from the start, when an opening scene of a violent coup against the ruling prime minister cuts abruptly to a white family laughing and teasing each other on a flight to that country. The family lands just in time to be embroiled in massive violence, ensuring that all focus is directed away from the citizens caught in the middle of a hostile takeover and onto these cherubic innocents who are terrorized by faceless brutes.
Owen Wilson digs deep into his bag of shocked and concerned faces as Jack, an out-of-work sanitation engineer who uproots his family to Asia to take a job with a multinational corporation. The most quintessential Wilson reaction comes at the start of his character’s ordeal, when, somehow, throngs of protesters and cops converge on Jack’s location to his surprise, despite making enough noise to be mistaken for artillery bombardment. Startled to see market streets suddenly barren but for the armed insurrectionists and equally violent riot police, Jack flashes a look of muted, futilely dignified panic that could fit in any Wes Anderson movie just before a cartoonish foot chase breaks out. Yet as the camera stays close to Wilson’s face for the remainder of the film, it teases out an increasingly primal edge from the actor as Jack loses more and more of his inhibitions in defense of his family.
Unfortunately for Jack, the script sets up his family as a collective of fools whose every move only puts them in greater danger. Jack’s children, Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare), seemingly compete to see who can better jeopardize their own survival, but this is Beeze’s game to lose. Think of the most useless characters in all of horror, combine all their traits, and distill them into the concentrated form of a six-year-old and you get Beeze. When silence is of the utmost importance, she’ll scream bloody murder over dropping a stuffed animal. Having narrowly survived a rooftop massacre, she instantly complains of hunger. Perhaps the only redeeming moment of the entire film is the beautifully absurd scene of Jack, desperate to get his family away from their overrun hotel, throwing Beeze to a rooftop across the way. The scene gets bonus points for being, hilariously, in slow motion, but loses some for the fact that she survives to continue to weigh down her family. Lake Bell, playing Jack’s wife, Annie, regularly gets reduced to either a means of keeping the kids calm or a target of the full extent of the marauding locals’ savagery.
Jack’s arc follows a base story of survivalism, but one so stripped down that it willfully obscures every possible detail that could complicate it. At times, this leads to inadvertent comedy; by way of a backstory, Jack mentions once developing a valve that was “almost a big deal,” a line that rates as one of the most bewildering, meaningless lines of exposition to ever exist outside of fantasy or science fiction. For the most part, however, the simplifications occur in the precise sculpting of the film’s setting, deliberately positioning the Thai shooting location as a generic nation to minimize offense. Yet this de-politicization has the inverse effect of exacerbating the material’s most repugnant qualities. By removing the context of constant, West-backed upheaval that has affected Thailand throughout its contemporary history, the film presents the indigenous people as a mindless horde. Director John Erick Dowdle films them in choppy, incomprehensible shots that dehumanize them further into a zombie-like force meant solely to terrify, which makes it so much easier to cheer when a white person kills one of them.
The only way that this film could be any more racist is if the Dwyer family holed up with Lillian Gish and waited for the Klan to save them. And, in its own way, the film approximates even this, valorizing Pierce Brosnan’s semi-retired government operative Hammond, whose sinister past in the region is forgiven for the knowledge it provides him in aiding the Dwyers whenever doom seems upon them. Hammond gets a speech near the end meant as a sop to any objections one might have with the rampant xenophobia, ambivalently explaining that people like him destabilized these countries in order for people like Jack to come make money off of them. Were the film not so resolutely ahistorical, Hammond’s confession might have had bite. Instead, it’s the final straw, an empty, smug gesture to assign meaning to an insipid provocation, something Banksy might have dreamed up while painting a mural of Mickey Mouse doing blow with Angela Merkel. No Escape posits a scenario in which the entire world around its characters becomes unintelligible and nightmarish, yet the scariest proposition of all is that we’re no closer to ridding ourselves of movies like these in the 21st century.