Written by: Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik
Directed by: Adam Robitel
Starring: Taylor Russell, Deborah Ann Woll, and Tyler Labine
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Find the clues or die.
With the first horror film of 2019 comes a sobering realization: we are, apparently, far enough away from the likes of Saw and Hostel that we now have films that feel vaguely nostalgic for that era of horror (if, indeed, one can be nostalgic for a time when Hollywood regularly bludgeoned audiences with torture-based horror). Escape Room doesn’t just leave you with the feeling that it was inspired by such fare; it feels like it should have arrived right alongside them all those years ago. It checks off so many familiar boxes that you could easily imagine a studio exec circa 2009 going down a list to ensure that this film could crest on the blood-soaked wave roaring through the genre at the time—albeit with a PG-13 rating (we’ll address that business soon enough). However, that initial familiarity may be by design since Escape Room cleverly redirects the typical splatter movie intrigue (“come watch people die horribly!”) into an unexpected direction: this is a film that genuinely wants the audience to feel anxiety about how its characters will survive.
An intense opening sequence subtly prepares you for this paradigm shift. Audiences are plunged in medias res, bearing witness to a young man frantically trying to escape a room as the walls close in on him. His eyes scan the walls for clues that might help him to unlock a cryptic combination lock on the door, practically inviting the audience to ride shotgun for this demented game. It’s to no avail, however, as the cluttered mass of assorted furniture and detritus slowly enclose, crushing him as the scene smash cuts to black. Audience members raised on a steady diet of butchered eye sockets and bisected torsos from Saw prologues might be left a touch disappointed to miss out on the gory fallout, but it soon becomes clear that Escape Room is purposely avoiding such grisliness.
Rather than dwell on the gory punctuation marks, Escape Room is much more invested in the means of survival embedded in its unhinged game. Make no mistake: the barebones plot of this film will immediately conjure up thoughts of Saw V and even the more recently released Jigsaw: six strangers find themselves in the lobby of an office building after receiving a mysterious invitation to an exclusive, highly secretive escape room promising a $10,000 reward for anyone who can conquer it. Soon, however, they realize something is amiss: not only is this “waiting room” actually the first part of the game, but it’s also a deathtrap. Soon, they’re surrounded by heating coils threatening to torch the entire room unless everyone can cooperate and use their wits to survive.
As was often the case in the Saw films, Escape Room sketches a modicum of backstory for each participant, or at least just enough to give the impression that we’re not just serving up six husks to a meat grinder. The group boasts a shy quantum physics savant (Taylor Russell), a hotshot financial advisor (Jay Ellis), a burnout grocery store clerk (Logan Miller), an Iraq war veteran (Deborah Ann Woll), a twitchy gamer (Nik Dodani), and a trucker (Tyler Labine), all of whom harbor traumatic backstories that suspiciously match up with each new room’s clues and torments. Piecemeal flashbacks gradually reveal a tenuous connection between each participant: true to its title, Escape Room itself is a bit of a puzzle that unlocks with each new room, though its eventual answers are familiar retreads.
Perhaps less familiar are the rooms themselves. Easily the film’s raison d'être, these meticulously crafted, elaborate sets are triumphs of production design. Each room has its own distinct aesthetic, whether it’s replicating a subarctic landscape or hurling the players into a topsy-turvy barroom where the floors—or ceilings—randomly collapse, forcing these damned souls to cling to their lives. While it’s natural to see these as deathtraps in the order of Jigsaw’s macabre murder implements, you quickly find yourself playing along with the characters, eager to discover how they’ll worm their way out of these predicaments This is the sneaky brilliance of Escape Room: at times, it actually simulates the experience of being trapped in a room, trying to escape alongside total strangers.
Luckily, we don’t have to worry about freezing to death or falling down a seemingly bottom less shaft, leaving us free to ride carelessly along as Adam Robitel breathlessly moves from one set-piece to the next. His direction prioritizes the obvious suspense baked into each set, including a legitimately claustrophobic, anxiety-inducing room where the victims actually get baked on hallucinogens. When it embraces its central concept—which is to say, when it shuts up, gets out of its own way, and allows its deranged production design sing—Escape Room is a sharp, twisted thriller that captures the appeal of its premise. Even if the PG-13 rating is a studio mandate intended to sell more tickets, it actually dovetails nicely with Robitel’s aim to wring out all of the possible suspense here: had he splattered his cast all over these sets, it might have felt something like a consolation prize. Sure, maybe they didn’t survive, but at least you saw their brains smash into a pulp. This way, you’re more invested in their survival—or at least more focused on their means of escape.
Whether or not you’ll be that enthralled over their fates will be debatable. I’m not about to argue that these are characters brimming with depth and profound insight on the human condition since Jigsaw-style moralizing isn’t part of the agenda here. They’re a mostly just a collection of clichés, though some nice details peek through: it’s nice to see the women emerge as the most capable and badass of the bunch, especially during a puzzle where Russell’s brains match Woll’s brawn, for example. What might be most important as that each performer brings the right level of conviction to each character to keep the proceedings just grounded enough. Escape Room is, of course, preposterous in theory, yet the cast is careful to keep it from spiraling into an outright farce.
The same can’t be said about the screenwriters, who seem to fall a little bit too in love with their own cleverness towards the end. Escape Room has at least a couple acceptable stopping points but lingers on anyway: it’s one thing to reveal the secrets driving the plot, but it’s another thing altogether to dwell upon them—especially when they’re just recycled leftovers from similarly scripted fare. It’s almost like the script out-thinks itself: it anticipates that the audience will expect the usual pre-credits stinger, so it obliges with the most belabored riff on the theme possible. This is one time when it’d be merciful to just puncture the balloon; instead, Escape Room slowly lets its air out with a deflating coda that’s the antithesis to the tightly wound 90 minutes that precede it.
This stumble aside, however, Escape Room is clever enough, particularly since it arrives in the dreaded January horror slot. Many past efforts haven’t inspired much confidence, but this one proves to be an exception in that respect: if nothing else, it has just enough juice to leave an impression, not to mention more than enough legs to inspire a franchise.
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