No Escape is an insane, no holds barred thrill ride that is certainly dividing audiences as we enter the final box office weekend of the summer. American businessman Jack Dwyer, wife Annie and their two young daughters arrive in Southeast Asia to begin a new life. As his company plans to improve the region's water quality, the family quickly learns that they're right in the middle of a political uprising. Armed rebels attack the hotel where they're staying, ordered to kill any foreigners that they encounter. Amid utter chaos, Jack must find a way to save himself and his loved ones from the violence erupting all around them.
On the surface, No Escape plays as tense action-thriller. Owen Wilson stars as the failed entrepreneur who relocates with his wife (Lake Bell) and their two young daughters to Southeast Asia after begrudgingly accepting a middle management job. What unfolds is a terrifying scramble for survival during a violent uprising where any Westerner is a target.
No Escape pulses with adrenaline pumping urgency and a naturalistic/realistic minimalism focused on the desperation and determination of the central characters. The movie has been rightly criticized for its one-dimensional portrayal of its villains, despite a quick scene decrying the evil of corporate imperialism. No Escape doesn't make room for nuance, maintaining a reverent devotion to its simplistic us vs. them/survive or die atmosphere, and it succeeds spectacularly in that sense.
Ex-James Bond, Pierce Brosnan delivers as a charming but mysterious battle weary stranger, but this isn't an "action movie" in the traditional sense. One scene felt either unintentionally lifted or perhaps homage to a well-known moment in Die Hard, but we don't see Wilson throwing elbows or blowing shit up. The filmmakers' history with economical horror movies, in both the literal and figurative sense, is evident throughout No Escape.
Ryan J. Downey got on the phone with writer/director John Erick Dowdle and his cowriter/producer brother, Drew Dowdle, to talk about the evolution of their filmography (which includes Devil, Quarantine, and As Above, So Below) and whether or not there was a directive to prevent Owen Wilson from saying "Wow!" Here is that conversation in full.
No Escape is a thriller with the beats of a horror flick. Your movies play almost like "bottle episodes" of TV series. Even when characters are running through the streets, it's very claustrophobic. How did that become your signature?
Drew Dowdle: I like that comparison to "bottle episodes."
John Erick Dowdle: Yeah, I like that too! It's a very astute observation. I think that comes from our background in writing and editing. The shorter the timeframe something happens in, the more energy it creates. Whether that's taking a script that's four days long and making it two days long, there's just something more energetic about it. I think it initially comes from that. But we're sort of extreme personalities. You know, up or down. There's not a lot of middle ground. We gravitate toward these movies where you're hopefully not checking your iPhone in the theater. We don't want you to let go of the movie. We try to hang onto you throughout the experience the best we can.
Drew Dowdle: We really gravitate toward stories that are experiential; "here's some characters and a situation," with a lot of energy toward the finish. No one ever changes clothes in any of our movies [laughs], as they all take place within a single day.
Although in this movie there's a change of clothes involving corpses.
Drew Dowdle: That's true. We told our costume designer, "We're throwing you a bone on this one. You get one change!"
John Erick Dowdle: "You're welcome!" [Laughs]
The kids in this movie, all of this chaos is happening around them, but they still have basic needs, which was very realistic. They need to potty. They're hungry. Adults can set those feelings aside in those situations, but kids won't.
John Erick Dowdle: As a parent, no matter how crazy what you're doing is, what's happening outside [a child's] world experience doesn't matter. We kept saying we wanted to make a family drama with action elements, not an action movie with a family in it.
The scene where Owen Wilson faces certain death to grab his kid's stuffed animal will play differently for people who have kids vs. people who don't have kids.
Drew Dowdle: That's a perfect example. A think a lot of the non-parents in the audience are going to be like, "Oh, like he'd really go back!" But every parent in the audience will understand [laughs]. That thing's important! It's like the life's blood of the child. You have to get it.
John Erick Dowdle: [Laughs] I fucked this kid's life up by bring her here. Things are going terribly. I'm going to make sure I don't lose her stuffed animal, too.
There's a supercut on YouTube featuring every time Owen Wilson has said "wow" in a movie. I didn't catch a single "wow" in this film.
Drew Dowdle: [Laughs] Our film was completely done before that supercut came out so we didn't go back and add any "wows" [laughs].
John Erick Dowdle: That would be amazing! Like, the riot's happening. They're shooting at the protestors. And then we just cut to -- "Wow!" That would be perfect.
He really inhabited this role. I was able to set aside any other Owen Wilson roles and just go, " Ok, he's a dad." I saw a dad trying to keep his wife and kids alive.
John Erick Dowdle: He's so good. You have a scene that's written in a certain way and then you give it to Owen and it just becomes this really natural, realistic thing. He's such a gift to a writer/director team, to see what he does with even the simplest of things. He's always bringing something more to everything. When we were gearing up for this, people kept saying, "So are you going to give Owen a crew cut and make him super tough looking?" We were like, "No! We want the Owen Wilson from Marley & Me."
You didn't want Van Damme in this movie. That becomes a whole different thing.
John Erick Dowdle: Exactly, exactly. We were looking for a guy where the audience wonders, "I don't know if this goes well for him."
Drew Dowdle: To your point, Ryan, our biggest criteria on casting Jack was, "Will this guy feel like a really good dad? The kind of dad you'd want yourself?" Owen totally checked that box for us. And he is a dad! He's a great dad. But in terms of movie world, Owen definitely felt that way to us before even making the movie.
My favorite scene of his, which I think was a combination of what's on the page and his performance, is when his wife is crying in the bathroom and he starts saying these reassuring things about why they've moved across the world, and she says, "I can't comfort you right now." It was such a perfect scene. Because on paper he's trying to comfort her but he plays it in a way where we recognize that he's actually looking for her to say, "It's OK you made this terrible decision." He communicates it so well. Otherwise it could've played very differently.
John Erick Dowdle: That scene was a delicate balance, you're right, and thank you for mentioning it. Owen was great and Lake was really great in that scene, too. You're right. It was a really delicate balance. You don't want her to seem like she's putting it all on him either, but, you need to understand this is tough on her.
John Erick Dowdle: From a character standpoint, I feel like this is so relatable, too. She has deep emotions about what's going on but she's trying not to let anyone know. She's trying to suffer in silence. She's trying to keep her pain to herself by holing away in the bathroom when everyone is asleep. I found something so touching about that and the way he enters into that. That's one of my favorite scenes in the movie.
There's a scene where Jack is admonishing her for bringing her rice cooker from America, like, "We just moved to Asia. I'm sure they have those here." But he's missing the point. She just wants something familiar, this one piece of normalcy and routine from the life she had yesterday she can hold onto today.
John Erick Dowdle: That came from when we shot a movie in Toronto a number of years ago and my wife brought boxes of spices and pans and the rice cooker. I'm like, "really, the rice cooker, you had to bring the rice cooker to Toronto?" That became a sort of running joke. "Don't bring the rice cooker on this trip" [laughs].
So where will you guys next terrify us over the course of a day?
John Erick Dowdle: No Escape is a little bit different from what we've done so we're going to follow that trajectory a little further. We have a couple TV things and a couple movie things. We're writing kind of four things all at once and they all look like they have a real shot at happening pretty quickly here. None of them are quite ready to announce. There are some true story thrillers and pretty cool stuff coming up.
Drew Dowdle: We've had a really fun year of reloading the barrel. And like John said, it's four things moving very quickly. One is a true story dramatic thriller for TV. One is a true story dramatic feature. One is a mystery for TV. It's kind of across the board. There's no horror in the slate right now. But as I think you appropriately said, No Escape is a thriller but through a horror sensibility, which I think we just have naturally, so some of these might have horror elements as well, 'though they wouldn't be labeled as horror.
No Escape is in theaters right now. Does this deeper conversation with Ryan J. Downey, John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle make you more apt to see it? Or is this one final summer blockbuster you'll pass on, instead saving your own box office dollars from something better to come along this September. Let us know below! And for anyone interested, here is the Owen Wilson 'Wow!' video. (This interview was conducted and written by Ryan J. Downey.)