The filmmakers behind “No Escape” seem to have had one goal in mind: to make a thriller suspenseful enough to elicit gasps from a (presumably) white-knuckled audience. Mission accomplished. But in their pursuit of thrills, the creators’ single-minded focus may have blinded them to one little problem about the film. They present the Southeast Asia country in which the film is set as little more than a dangerous hotbed of machete-wielding savages. Though shot in Thailand, the country is left unnamed, perhaps out of charity, though the film’s stereotypes malign an entire region of the world.
This anonymous nation is the new home of a family from Austin. Desperate for work, engineer Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson, playing Owen Wilson) has taken a job with the Asian outpost of an American company and has relocated his wife, Annie (Lake Bell), and two young daughters (Claire Geare and Sterling Jerins). The family is staying at a hotel filled with expats where the television transmits nothing but static; the phone doesn’t work; and light switches operate only sporadically. It’s not long before Jack finds Annie crying on the floor of the bathroom in the middle of the night. He looks at his despondent wife and apologizes profusely. “I can’t comfort you right now,” she tells him. It’s a perfect moment that tells us a lot. She’s suffering, but she’s trying to be reasonable; she doesn’t want to assign blame.
Soon, malfunctioning electronics will be the least of her worries.
From here on, the subtleties of this family’s relationships are thrown into stark relief with the portrayal of everyone else in the movie. On a quest to find a newspaper, Jack ends up winding his way through foreign streets, where the camera doesn’t focus on the lush textiles or colorful spices at market stalls, but on the woman chopping the head off a fish. His encounter with an expressionless vendor who sells Jack a three-day-old copy of USA Today is played for laughs. Moment later, Jack finds himself in the middle of a street, caught between the country’s national guard and a group of rock-hurling rebels. He narrowly makes it back to his hotel to find that it’s under attack and Westerners are being publicly executed.
Jack and his family first have to find a way out of the hotel and then somehow stay alive in a city they don’t know. In one scene, their escape includes a running leap from one rooftop to the next, which is depicted not as a balletic James Bond maneuver, but with false starts, scraped knees and a sickening thud.
John Erick Dowdle directed the movie from a script he co-wrote with his brother Drew Dowdle. The pair has collaborated before, mainly on such horror movies as “Quarantine” and “As Above, So Below.” They’ve mastered the art of suspense: The near misses are relentless, and the slow-motion depictions of violence give us a suitably terrifying understanding of what’s at stake.
As the movie wears on, however, the gore is increasingly over-the-top, as each of the family’s encounters with bad guys becomes more and more sickening. Meanwhile, every Asian character is either a ruthless murderer or anonymous collateral damage. A lot of locals have to die, the film suggests, in order for one white family to survive.
In a twist on orientalism, the film demonizes rather than romanticizes the “exotic” inhabitants of its foreign setting. A white Western viewer can probably choose to ignore the movie’s outlook and just let “No Escape” be what it wants to be: a spellbinding thriller. But what good comes from celebrating narrow-mindedness?
R. At area theaters. Contains strong violence, including a sexual assault, and language. 103 minutes.