No Escape, the latest film from Quarantine director John Erick Dowdle, is a tense and harrowing ride for most of its 103 minute running time. With a strong cast and a solid plot that skirts the line of plausibility without ever veering over, the film manages to avoid the well-worn clichés of “family in peril” thrillers and Taken knock-offs while still delivering suspenseful entertainment at every turn.
Owen Wilson plays Jack Dwyer, an engineer and one-time entrepreneur whose reluctant career detour leads him to uproot the lives of his wife Annie (Lake Bell, Million Dollar Arm) and daughters Lucy (Sterling Jerins, And So It Goes) and Beeze (Claire Geare) from their home in Texas as he assumes a middle management role at a U.S. corporate-owned water treatment plant in Southeast Asia. Less than 24 hours after their arrival, the Dwyers find they have a whole lot more to worry about than lost luggage or not being able to read the newspapers: a violent coup kicked off by the assassination of the unnamed country’s prime minister takes over the streets surrounding their hotel, and the insurgents forcing their way in and quickly executing any Westerners they come across.
With literally no understanding of what is going on or why the insurgents seem to be targeting them specifically, the Dwyers manage to keep one step ahead of those trying to kill them thanks in part to Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), a British national who proves to be more than just the randy, rough-around-the-edges tourist he initially presents. With no help coming from the outside and the net cast by the militants rapidly closing around them, the goal for the Dwyers becomes bloodily simple: survive and evade long enough to cross the border into a neighboring country and request asylum, which is, of course, far easier said than done when their very physical appearance makes them stand out even amidst the swirling chaos of a popular uprising.
Having directed 2010’s Devil and last year’s As Above, So Below in addition to Quarantine, John Erick Dowdle is certainly no stranger to effectively bringing to audiences the terror of feeling trapped. In fact, it’s a running theme in just about all of his films — Quarantine featured people trapped in a contagion-infected apartment building, Devil focused on characters trapped in an elevator with a demonic entity, and As Above, So Below centered on a group trapped in ancient catacombs beneath the streets of Paris. What does separate No Escape from those previous efforts in terms of Dowdle’s direction is his move away from utilizing the “found footage” technique he’s used previously, which is a welcome change. Granted, there’s still some instances of that technique’s well known and oft bemoaned “shaky cam” to be found here as the production follows the cast running down narrow corridors, dimly-lit staircases and dirty back alleys. But mostly Dowdle and director of photography Léo Hinstin go with wider, more traditional shots to better incorporate the exotic look and feel of the film’s locations, as well as to convey to audiences just how far removed from the safe and familiar the story’s protagonists really are.
Dowdle also is very careful to keep the narrative focus of the film on the Dwyers at all times save the film’s opening minutes — he keeps their perspective of the events around them front and center, with the result being that the minds and motives of the insurgents remain relatively unknown to them. There aren’t even subtitles provided to translate dialogue spoken by the militants, to keep those viewing just as much in the dark about what’s being said or shouted as rocks are being hurled and bullets fired at our viewpoint characters. The cumulative effect of all these subtle choices is a surprising level of tension and genuine terror. No Escape may not be a “horror film” in the same sense that Dowdle’s previous films all were, but thanks to his approach it still provides plenty of scares.
There are, however, a few questionable choices in terms of the film’s final edit, the most glaring of which is his liberal use of slow motion in editing the film’s set pieces, enough so that its noticeable and it feels heavy handed. It’s as though Dowdle didn’t trust the tension and suspense he and his brother/writing partner Drew Dowdle wrote into their script to be intense and riveting enough, so he uses the slo-mo to at times unnecessarily drag things out. Arguably, the film’s first act is a bit ponderous, as well; the intent to fully introduce the family dynamic and set the stage for what’s to come is certainly clear, but like the handling of the film’s more intense sequences, had Dowdle and his crew trusted their material and the quality of the cast’s performance to draw the audience in and get them invested, it all could have been done more efficiently and to the same effect.
Speaking of the cast, those reading this who might find the prospect of Owen Wilson being the lead in a film of this kind odd or worrisome should put that all aside, as he for the most part keeps his trademark goofiness to a minimum and delivers a capable “everyman” performance. Lake Bell, also a performer one might not quickly associate with work in action thrillers, is equally strong here in a role that actually demands quite a bit more than Wilson’s in a number of ways, not the least of which is one particularly intense scene she is the victim of a sexual assault. In contrast, Brosnan is far more in his element here, though Hammond is far closer in character type to the neurotic hitman he played in 2005’s The Matador than he is to Bond, James Bond, and so he’s completely credible in the role, even during one of the film’s few lighter scenes when he’s singing on a karaoke stage … badly. He doesn’t have as much screen time here as one might expect going in, but when he is on screen, he’s clearly comfortable with the material.
But what’s really best about No Escape is that it stays grounded and plausible. What audiences witness the Dwyers experience was carefully conceived and executed to come across as something that could happen to any Western family out of their element in any volatile part of the world, and it works. As a result, it’s one of those films you’re likely never to see on an overseas flight, as the last thing airlines want to do is spook their passengers right before their family getaways to exotic locales where they don’t speak the language. So if you enjoy thrillers where it’s more about atmosphere and suspense than crazy stunts and action, by all means see this film.
Just don’t see it before you go on vacation abroad.
Starring Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Sterling Jerins, Claire Geare, and Pierce Brosnan. Directed by John Erick Dowdle.
Running Time: 103 minutes
Rated R for strong violence including a sexual assault, and for language.