Six people receive a package in short order at the start of ESCAPE ROOM. They come from the people they trust most in their lives. A professor, a favorite client, a nephew, and so on. It offers them something to do during a Thanksgiving they’d otherwise be forced to spend alone for a variety of reasons. An escape room that promises 10,000 dollars to anyone who can solve it.

So one by one they show up. Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), the sarcastic Iraq War vet. Ben (Logan Miller), the grocery store stockboy who’s boss won’t give him a chance to move up. Danny (Nik Dodani) the gamer who has beaten every major escape room in the nation. Mike (Tyler Labine), the trucker convinced robots will take his job any day. Zoey (Taylor Russell), the physics genius who can only bring herself to let in a mentor and her roommate. Jason (Jay Ellis), the stockbroker extraordinaire with the best quips in the biz.

Then they find this is no ordinary escape room. This one, well, this one is playing for keeps.

Taylor Russell delights in solving a puzzle box that does not bring on Pinhead in a scene from ESCAPE ROOM. (Courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

Not the Promised Bill of Goods

Despite what the marketing and trailer might imply, ESCAPE ROOM is not a horror movie. I do not mean this in a BABADOOK/IT FOLLOWS “this is too high art to count as horror”. I also don’t mean in it in the A QUIET PLACE/GET OUT “this is introductory level” horror hound dismissiveness either. No. All I’m saying is that this literally is not a horror movie.

There is tension at points, for sure, some of it well done. There were certainly moments my heart rate increased a bit. However, there is zero gore, not even of the PG-13 varietal. I counted no supernatural elements, even implied. The movie’s closest cousin on the horror side of things would be the SAW films, I suppose, and any watching of the movies back to back will make very clear just how much ROOM cannot be filed under “horror.”

Deborah Ann Woll is pretending she’s not about to laugh in this scene from ESCAPE ROOM. (Courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

The Structure of ESCAPE ROOM

We are traipsing towards spoiler territory here, be warned. I’m not going to literally spoil anything, but if you are the type who cannot stand all but the barest of plot details, jump to “That’s a Wrap!” for the summary and avoid all this. Everyone else staying ready for a deeper investigation? Great! Here we go.

The movie begins with a scene that is lifted from what feels like the end of the movie. Well, it should be towards the end of the movie. I’ll discuss in one of the following sections what a dog’s breakfast of the ending. But for now, suffice to say the movie ends with a scene that is from the tail end of the movie.

With some films, this can create mystery and stakes right away. Here though, the moment we know the “rules” of the titular escape room, that scene actually removes a large bit of tension from the movie. It does not spoil the exact means by which we’ll get to that moment, but it gives us a fairly clear endpoint to the action. Remove that scene and there really is no telling who is safe. Giving it to us from jump gives us a very good idea of who we can count on hanging around for a while.

Nik Dodani discovers everything has limits in a scene from ESCAPE ROOM. (Courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

The Characters of ESCAPE ROOM

There is an element, again without being specific enough to spoil things, that the six characters have in common. What exactly this element is does not stand revealed until an exposition dump just over halfway into the movie. However, there are hints of what it might be in both flashbacks of the protagonists and certain props in some areas of the various settings in the escape room. That’s fine. The foreshadowing is a little ham-handed and I think most people will have a pretty good idea of what the element is before the movie reveals it, but the idea largely works.

Except we do not actually get flashbacks or totems for two of the characters. Therefore, it is only in the exposition jump that we find out anything of their stories. It is like the film gives you permission not to care about them. After all, if they mattered, surely they’d get the same treatment as the other four. When the name of the game is “who will survive?” well the odds get a lot easier to calculate when the movie cannot stop showing you their cards.

Logan Miller seems remarkably chill for being in a murder room in ESCAPE ROOM. (Courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

The Actors of ESCAPE ROOM

This is particularly frustrating because, by in large, the acting here is decent to very good. In particular, Labine turns in a performance very different than anything else I’ve seen him do before. His low-key blue collar man feels very lived in. If anything, he seems more adept here than he has in a lot of his more manic comedically tuned performances. I also liked what Woll does with her fire-phobic veteran and Russell’s work as a shy college student seemingly trying to avoid the larger world. There are certain similarities in how both characters react to stimuli but each actor makes it enough their own that neither feels redundant

Only Ellis’s businessman gets a raw deal. It has more to do with the script, though, than his performance. As the film progresses, they increasingly cast him in the role of a heartless bad guy until, by the end, they imply an earlier humanizing revelation may have been a lie to hide some pretty dark behaviors. The deathtraps do fine as the villains of the piece, the movie does not need to turn Jason into a social Darwinism spouting bruiser. Particularly when this late villain edit means so little in the context of the full film.

Tyler Labine realizes his beard is pretty spectacular in a moment during ESCAPE ROOM. (Courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

The Ending of ESCAPE ROOM

Now back to that first scene. As noted above, it feels like a moment from the end of the film but it turns out to be, let’s say, a second to ending moment. After that there two kind of twists, both of which you will anticipate, and a more definitive end to the escape room action. Then there is a postlude.

First, the film’s own structure, as noted, somewhat spoils if not the end, the table setting of the end. Second, one of the twists, while fine in isolation, becomes nihilistic nonsense when paired with the film’s postlude. I am so tired of movies in the horror and thriller genre throwing in the last minute “this victory is false” reveal. Especially when, as here, it is paired with an “an omniscient/ omnipresent/ unkillable opponent actually is getting the last laugh” punch out. I do not find them clever or mind-blowing. They feel like the act of movie makers who are not confident enough that their work can succeed without some sort of “gotcha” denouement.

The “but the threat is not really gone” style postludes of CARRIE or FRIDAY THE 13th had power to them. They were confident swerves on storytelling conventions. Now the real gutsy thing to do is create an ending — be it triumphant or bleak — and stick with it. The postludes of today have become increasingly less the stylistic flourishes of confident or gonzo filmmakers and more like hedging, like plaintive pleas for a sequel.

Jay Ellis urges the box to reveal its secrets with the power of his handsomeness in ESCAPE ROOM. (Courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

That’s a Wrap!

I honestly did not dislike this movie as much as the review above reads. However, it is the kind of film that falls apart if you push on it at all and the ending forces you to do just that. This is about 2/3 of a good matinee movie experience. It builds tension well; the deathtraps of the plot have a decent amount of logic to them and feel inventive. The characters are largely interesting and well-sketched and the actors inhabiting them do good work with the material. If the movie gave a satisfying ending, even a conventional one, I would have walked away saying, “hey, that’s what I call a good January movie theatre experience.”

The ending created a crack in that experience, however, and that crack just continued to grow and spread. It exposed the more easily overlooked flaws and shortcomings. You know, the failure to carry the “here is this character’s plot important flashback” and “here is a trinket in the Escape Room that forces them to recall that moment” devices. The late villainous turn of a character that is too insignificant to be necessary. And so on.

So, no ESCAPE ROOM is not as bad as some of its worst reviews. It is not, in my opinion, an example of a studio dumping its biggest dog in this post-holiday wasteland. It is, however, a decently clever movie that loses confidence in itself the moment it most needs it. As a result, knocks down the house of cards it had, heretofore, adequately stacked.

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