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No Escape

August 26, 2015
No Escape

Hollywood is, as a whole, run by moneyed interests trying to gain more money by extracting it from — to a somewhat decreasing these days but still pretty large extent — American pocketbooks. You have to be pretty well-established in the mainstream to play the game in the first place, and the most lucrative demographics are themselves pretty mainstream. And for “mainstream”, you should be reading “white, male, heterosexual, generally sound of mind and body, and so on”. It’s not really a surprise that Hollywood movies end up including racist, sexist, homophobic, and other discriminatory tropes that generally turn out-group members — “Them” — into nonentities, punchlines, or worse.

Some movies are better than others, and the presence of problematic elements doesn’t automatically make one terrible, but for various reasons audiences have gradually been getting more aware of these sorts of issues. As they become aware, some have started speaking out more publicly, and others have responded by giving the cold shoulder at the box office. And, since Hollywood is driven by nothing so much as money, we’re starting to see some progress in changing the kinds of stories we tell ourselves, and how we tell them.

Which is why I’m surprised to see a movie as blatantly and unapologetically racist as No Escape come out today, and distributed by the Weinsteins, no less. It’s not even hidden; just a great big steaming pile of pretty, rich white people running away from scary poor yellow-brown people.

The white people in question are Jack and Annie Dwyer (Owen Wilson and Lake Bell), and their two cute little girls. Jack has taken a job with a multinational corporation to help set up a water treatment facility in — well, to be honest they never really say where exactly it takes place, as if all these southeast Asian countries are interchangeable. It was filmed in Chiang Mai, but there are references to the Vietnamese border, which Thailand doesn’t have. The printing on most signs looks like it might be Thai, but to be honest I can’t tell the difference at a glance between Khmer, Thai and Lao. One bit I’m sure of, though, is the police gear; it was printed in Khmer, but upside-down, to the understandable consternation of the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

So the night after the Dwyers land, the prime minister is executed. The next day, rioting breaks into the streets, particularly targeting foreigners and foreign collaborators. Not only are Jack and his family obviously white, his position was important enough that his face was printed larger-than-life on a banner hung in the hotel where all foreign visitors stay. They have to escape the yellow horde with targets painted squarely on their faces.

The timing of the production seems to suggest an inspiration in last year’s Thai coup; it’s been suggested that trying to print the police gear in Khmer instead of Thai was part of an attempt to provide cover so they could film in Thailand in the first place. I hate to break it to writer/director John Erick Dowdle, but foreigners weren’t particular targets of that coup, and the violence he depicts is more on the scale of the Khmer Rouge than the sorts of unrest we’ve seen in more recent decades in that region.

I will give this to Dowdle: he does ultimately root the conflict in a real concern about the way multinational corporations exploit third-world economies. Unfortunately, he bungles even that by delivering the muddled explanation through a white mercenary named Hammond (Pierce Brosnan) who comes to the Dwyers’ aid towards the end of the movie, rather than letting an actual local give voice to their own concerns. In fact, locals don’t get to voice anything at all in this movie. Other than one of Hammond’s pals, the biggest speaking role for a local is the concierge at the foreigners’ hotel. Because, it suggests, when the yellow and brown people stop speaking subserviently and helpfully to the white people something has gone Very Wrong.

I understand what Dowdle was trying to do here. By cutting us in the audience off from what the locals are saying, he’s trying to impart the same sense of isolation the Dwyers would be feeling. It’s a colossal misstep, though, which serves to heighten the us-versus-them dynamic, and undercuts the idea that there’s a reason to any of this chaos beyond crazy yellow people being crazy. Besides, despite whatever Hammond explains, all the rebels we actually see on screen are merciless sadists bent on coming up with newer and crueler tortures for their victims.

No one is going to claim that people have not done terrible things like we see in this movie. But in southeast Asia most of the victims are other locals, not white tourists. And when white people are involved in these horrors, they’re much more likely to be the persecutors than the targets. The most interesting story in a violent revolution in a third-world country is pretty much never going to be about the pretty white kids caught in the middle of it all.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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