If Bone Tomahawk is a mashup by intent No Escape is a mashup, but an inadvertent one. The tale appears to have aspirations to a coherent whole–American family caught up in a revolution, with some political commentary present to enrich the action and add a worthy complexity. Instead, the film is a kind of mixed-up mess. There are layers to this creature all right, but they are not layers that have been carefully thought through.
Owen Wilson has been newly hired as a mid-level manager with an American company that is building water systems in an unnamed Southeast Asian country. He takes his wife and two young daughters off to live the expat life. His wife, Lake Bell, is not happy at the prospect, and there is some tension between the couple on the wisdom of the move.
Immediately on arrival Wilson finds himself in the midst of a pitched street battle between the government and armed rebels. He tries to escape the street fighting but it keeps coming. These early scenes are effective and visceral, as they show the confusion of a man having to come to grips quite quickly with the fact that he and his family are not only in deep trouble but that he really has no idea what to do since everything around him is foreign and he has no frame of reference to judge events.
This part is Hitchcockian in not a bad way, I will grant. An amped up The Man Who Knew Too Much, with Wilson neatly cast as the Stewart-like American everyman.
But then the layers kick in. It is not enough that the film stays at the action thriller level. It needs to make political points as well. And it is here that it gets into trouble.
It turns out that Wilson–a political innocent–has no idea of the foreign policy context of the water work his company is doing. Embedded in the film is a critique of neoliberal foreign policy that is worthy of Paul Craig Roberts: the purpose of international financial institutions is to create vassal states by loaning too much money and setting up the grounds for economic subservience. The water scheme is part of that plan, so Wilson is unknowingly helping to convert the country into an American dependency.
Looked at that way, we are the bad guys. A faintly sinister Pierce Brosnan has been written in as a shadowy agent of some sort, the better to explain the international hanky-panky to the audience. Presumably he handles the wetwork for the water works.
Brosnan reminds Wilson of the inconvenient fact that he, Wilson, is the bad guy, suggesting too that the rebels are only trying to save their own families, just as Wilson is doing.
So the politics of the film push us in the direction of a critique of American policy and sympathy for the insurgents. But at the same time the insurgents are hardly sympathetic, even if one has sympathy for their policy complaints. No, these rebels are evil incarnate. They are not just out to overturn the government. They are out to sadistically slaughter every man jack in their murderous way. To use a Malay term in a near-Malay context, they are running amok, machetes slashing and guns blazing, and all in their path perish bloodily.
So what country is this anyway? It’s not Malaysia. The brutal killing suggests something along the lines of the Indonesian slaughter of communists made vivid in the documentary The Act of Killing. And the organized ideological aspect suggests the Cambodia of Pol Pot. But those are both ancient history. The most likely suspect is Thailand. Which is in its own way odd.
Thailand has had its share of political violence recently. In fact, some of it was going on during the filming–the real street fighting over here and the Hollywood version over there. But Thailand has not had as far as I know anything close to the Pol Pot kind of thing portrayed in the film. It is perhaps not surprising that Thailand banned the film from exhibition, even as it allowed the filming.
And there’s yet another allusion to a Southeast Asian country in the film, too. To Vietnam.
The film includes a sequence in which the rebels have captured Wilson and appear ready to execute him. When his young daughter shows up to plead for mercy, they are not mindful at all, as parents, of the plight of the poor kid. No, they give her a gun and tell her to shoot her dad. When she resists, they put a gun to her head to induce her to pull the trigger. This sequence seems lifted in its structure and affect from The Deer Hunter, where the sadistic Vietnamese compelled Russian Roulette under the the threat of a machine gun.
The bad guys in No Escape also have those attractive headscarves that were the rage among fashionable Vietcong at the time, under The Deer Hunter‘s version of the war. Good to know they are coming back.
So Vietnam is also in the mix in the film. Actually, though, we know it is not Vietnam because, conveniently enough, Vietnam is apparently just across the river from the city where the action is taking place, and in the end the family is able to paddle just a few hundred years to safety. Nifty plot device!
Of course Thailand does not border Vietnam and there are no cities in Cambodia or Laos near the Vietnamese border. But hey, its only a movie.
Still the whole notion of dangerous killer Asians running amok appears to smack a bit of Orientalism, no? It was already getting to be in bad taste to go down this road at the time of The Deer Hunter.
So why go down this road now?
My theory: we are not worried about murderous Asians, really, but murderous Muslims. But we cannot go down that road at all. 1991’s Not Without My Daughter showed Sally Field fighting back against an Iran intent on keeping her daughter in the country, property of her Iranian father. And 1994’s True Lies had actual Arab bad guys. That’s about it in the Arab or Muslim bad guy department. Better we should fantasize about killer Asians.
Crime shows portray the bad guys as much whiter than they are statistically. The evildoer in film is usually portrayed as a German, better yet a Brit. It is perhaps a tribute to the arrival of Asians into privileged quasi-white status that we appear unafraid to stereotype them in ways that would cause offense if other ethnic groups were treated the same way.
To conclude, it is not the intention that is to be faulted here but, so to speak, the execution. The tension between everyday life-as-lived and broader social and political forces is not only fair game but admirable game, and has been handled effectively in literature and film quite a bit.
We live our lives in relatively small worlds but at the same time cannot help but be connected to larger issues. The nature of modern communications demands that, to say nothing of the obligations of citizenship and the meaning of the public square. But there is an inherent gap between the small scale of life-as-lived and the inevitably larger scale of the public realm. That gap has huge dramatic potential, and has been effectively exploited in films as different as The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Under Fire.
If a movie wanted to create a Paul Craig Roberts universe and drop Jimmy Stewart into it, go for it. But then do it well, and find ways to pull at the many tensions available to you as the god creating that universe. That is, don’t just set up the premise and then just have poor Jimmy chased around by manaical bad guys out of a Deer Hunter fever dream.
So don’t get me wrong. A really excellent movie about the interplay between everyday Americans and American foreign policy can, and should, be made. This isn’t it.
BTW I liked Lake Bell in the film well enough but I found her more fetching telling this joke online.