David Brooks had a coruscating op-ed piece in the New York Times Friday morning about the philosophy and meaning of ISIS. It leaves you terribly pessimistic about the world's ability to understand, let alone, respond to this threat. But never fear. Hollywood, in the person of the Weinstein Brothers, knows what to do. They made No Escape.
The movie, which opened this week, tells the story of an adorable American family who has come to an unnamed Southeast Asian country for dad's new job. He is an engineer and he has been hired by a never-seen corporate giant to revamp the country's faltering waterworks. He is there, as he repeats several times, to do good.
Only the natives don't share that opinion. The family has waded right into a violent armed rebellion which overthrows the country's imperial regime and massacres anything evenly remotely related to the West.
On one hand, No Escape, directed by John Erick Dowdle, and produced by his brother Drew for the Weinstein Company, is an effective suspense thriller. Dowdle, who has mostly worked on low budget horrors to this point, is a talented director. He keeps the pace brisk. He uses devices like slow motion and sound drop-outs to great effect. His star, Owen Wilson, who would seem a most unlikely choice for this type of movie, does rather well. Dowdle never asks him to turn into Jason Bourne. There are no MMA-style pyro-technics and Wilson's engineer does not turn into Django with an Uzi. In fact, for most of the movie, Jack Dwyer (the character Wilson plays) is running and hiding. This is not an award-worthy performance, but it is at the very least, competent.
But as you watch Jack and his adorable little girls run and hide from the mob, it's hard not to recognize that the Dowdle's have gone out of their way to make that mob as animalistic as possible. Until a brief scene toward the end of the movie, we are never given any insight into their cause. They never speak in words we can understand. In what appears to be a recognition of ISIS, their primary weapons are blades. They slaughter helpless men, women, and children.
Based on what the Dowdle's are attempting to achieve, this anonymous brutality is dramatically essential. This is a movie about survival. About running. Jack must go to great lengths to protect his family, and if his pursuers are seen as reasonable, compassionate men, much of his motivation vanishes. This is typically the purview of monster movies. There's negotiating with Freddy Krueger.
Watching No Escape should remind us that we think we know far more about how the world works than we really do. It seems odd, for instance, that Jack accepts this job and brings his family to this far-away place apparently oblivious to the powder keg that is about to explode. Jack has full faith that the never-seen corporate giant will protect him and his family from any possible inconvenience. Willful ignorance. Sincere desire to believe we are doing good. Blind trust in the security offered by the corporate state. Sound like any country you know?
Had No Escape embraced this vision of American bewilderment, it might have been a more dynamic movie. Had it allowed even the slightest development of this unnamed country's native voice, it might have made a point beyond its superficial survival theme. None of the rebels speak. All they do is scream and slaughter. It is left to a British security man, Pierce Brosnan in the role of the prototypical corporate mercenary, to speak for the restless natives. The Dowdle's write him a good little speech and Brosnan delivers quite well. But it would have been so much more effective had at least one of the rebels spoken for himself.
Toward the climax, there is brutality and inhumanity that transcends what has come before it. It is an emotionally explosive sequence in which the rebels clearly become unfathomable monsters. Again, this is dramatically justifiable. But this is also where the movie is most ISIS-conscious. It is hard to imagine it being made this way if we had not been subjected to repeated atrocities from ISIS over the past several years. In his opinion piece, Brooks argues that we need to look realistically at what motivates ISIS if we want to defeat them. Keep the disgust and outrage. Condemn the vile brutality and seek justice. But don't underestimate the rationality of purpose that drives the despicable actions. No Escape was not interested in that level of understanding.
At the end of No Escape, something rather odd happens. SPOILER ALERT. The heroes are trying to cross the border into Viet Nam (and just consider the irony of that for a moment - Americans fleeing to Viet Nam for safety). In classic D.W. Griffith-fashion, the bad guys are pursing them. When they cross the border, Vietnamese troops demand that the rebels stop their pursuit. In English. These are characters who have not communicated in English for the entire movie, but suddenly, they understand. Of course, it could be the rifles that the Vietnamese soldiers point at them. That language is universal.
For some reason, I thought of David Ayer's 2014 movie Fury at that point. Fury is a WWII tank movie with Brad Pitt, and it's pretty good. At the end of the movie, a young American soldier is hiding beneath a ruined tank as a line of German soldiers pass by. There has been much brutality already and if the American is discovered, he will be killed. An unnamed German soldier, equally young, looks under the tank. And winks. The Germans march on and the American survives. That moment, which does not forgive countless German atrocities, but does recognize the humanity of at least one German soldier, is a beautiful piece of film. If only No Escape had aspired to that.