Thematically, No Escape is exactly the kind of film one might expect from its makers. Brothers Drew and John Erick Dowdle have a track record of making slick, gut-wrenching horror films about people trapped in nightmare situations. In Quarantine, they quarantined an entire building with super-rabies. In Devil, they stuck some folks in an elevator with the devil. In As Above, So Below, they sent a few adventurers into the cult world of dark catacombs below Paris.
If ‘wretchedly insensitive’ seems too strong a statement, know that critics generally agree.
No Escape, then, makes sense. Set in an unnamed Southeast Asian nation, No Escape is the story of one American family trapped inside a violent political coup. “We didn’t want to make a statement about any one country,” Drew Dowdle told me in an interview. “That seemed like the wrong thing to do.”
I had the chance to sit down with Drew and John Erick recently, to ask them about their movie and the coup it uses for a setting. The film is made with undeniable technical skill: The action is gripping, and the performances by Owen Wilson and Lake Bell (especially) are moving. By most accounts, this is a successful, white-knuckling thriller.
Still, talking to them was a little awkward because there is one major problem: No Escape is wretchedly insensitive. For two hours, audiences watch a white family on the run in a nameless country, fighting to survive a nameless mob of Asians mercilessly trying to slaughter them.
To be fair, there is some pretense for the rebels’ behavior, but what we get comes off as little more than lip service. Hammond, a British ex-pat played by Pierce Brosnan, talks for a minute or two about debt, Western national interests, and the exploitation of water rights, infusing the movie with a political context for the unrelenting violence.
“Hammond tells us the rebels are not wrong. The violence is wrong,” Drew said. “There’s nothing that justifies that kind of violence.” The Dowdles attempted to write in some humanity for their Asian characters. But Hammond’s speech falls far short, given the extreme violence portrayed in the movie.
And if “wretchedly insensitive” seems too strong a statement, know that critics generally agree.
Alonso Duralde, at the Wrap, puts the film in the company of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda work and D.W. Griffith’s klan-hero story, Birth of a Nation. Duralde thinks the film operates with a “queasily racist subtext,” which “surrounds our American protagonists with a bloodthirsty, faceless Yellow Peril.” At the Washington Post, Stephanie Merry calls the film out for “stereotyping an entire region of the world,” by presenting Southeast Asia as “little more than a dangerous hotbed of machete-wielding savages.” Justin Chang, film critic at Variety, describes No Escape as a “morally rank slab of cultural exploitation.”
The Dowdles, of course, don’t see it that way. Regarding their decision to set the film during a Southeast Asian coup, John told me about being in one. “It was inspired from that setting,” he said. “My dad and I went to Thailand, and on the day we got there, there was a coup. And I started to think, what if you had little kids with you? What if something really bad happened? That coup was smooth, but what if it wasn’t?”
There actually was a coup in Thailand two weeks after shooting for No Escape wrapped. “We were away from that action but were concerned that if the country fell into full coup mode we might have to pack up and leave,” Drew said. “Having that kind of thing in the background when you’re shooting a movie is very nerve-wracking.”
“We felt like we have a good relationship with Southeast Asia, but most Americans don’t really know it that well.”
The question remains, though, why Southeast Asia? Why a real place at all? “We had conversations about what would this look like in South America, or in other parts of the world and Southeast Asia was the right place,” Drew explained. “It’s so foreign, we don’t have the same kind of history in Southeast Asia that we do in Africa. The Middle East means something very different. We felt like we have a good relationship with Southeast Asia, but most Americans don’t really know it that well.”
Generally, American audiences may not be super familiar with Southeast Asian culture, but our cinema has never shied away from depicting the region, particularly Vietnam. And in that tradition, No Escape is only the latest film to set the trials and tribulations of white visitors against a backdrop of death, devastation, or just plain anonymity. During and after the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese became a popular cinematic bad-guy. The best films to come out of that war—Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Platoon—had little need for complicated characterization; such stories only seemed to need Southeast Asian actors to inhabit nameless wartime opposition and prostitutes.
Since then, things haven’t changed much. In 2000, Leonardo DiCaprio traveled to Thailand to find himself, “a little danger”, white tourists, and Thai pot farmers in The Beach. In 2012, The Impossible portrayed the struggles of a white family on vacation when the 2004 tsunami struck the region. Even the The Hangover II reduces Thailand to criminality and savagery as the rule.
What all of these movies fail to realize is that treating human characters as humans, not props, can only make a movie better, more realistic, and more honest to the human experience.