Roar Uthaug's Cold Prey proved himself as a director who can take familiar, straightforward ideas and apply shrewd filmmaking tactics and raw energy to create something fresh -- nothing particularly original, but effective nevertheless. His latest film, Escape (Flukt), redirects that inherent quality from the snowy modern-era slasher movies that kick-started his current reputation to Europe's bleak post-Black Plague landscape in the 1300s, for an intense survival story laced with the psychological pains of losing one's family. Again, there's nothing too complex about what Uthaug's concocted here: it depicts a teenage girl's escape from opportunistic marauders who killed her family and enslaved her for unsavory purposes, set against the backdrop of a lawless and disorderly land. But what it does accomplish in its simplicity can often be gripping, much like in Cold Prey, where the Norwegian landscape frames her flight as a lush, harrowing journey of survival that's intermittently underscored by visceral tension and family turmoil.
Set roughly ten years after the Black Plague wiped out a substantial portion of Norway's population, Escape depicts a roaming family who are attacked and brutally murdered along the road -- except for Signe (Isabel Christine Andreasen), the elder daughter who's somewhere south of her twenties. After being examined by the female marauder of the group, Dagmar (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), and deemed an asset, she's brought back to their camp until they decide exactly how to handle their plans for the young girl, where she's forced to endure the gazes and advances of uncontrollable men. Eventually, with a few strokes of luck and the help of a young girl at the camp, she's able to break free from captivity and trek across the land as fast as she can. Dagmar and her clan aren't far behind, though, as they're not willing to cease their pursuit until they're able to find the young girl who helped Signe break free. The question becomes one of endurance and craftiness, and if her inexperienced wits will be enough to keep her out of the reach of outdoorsmen who know the landscape.
"No" should probably be the right answer, but it's easy to go along with the scenario to see how Signe evades the clan of Dagmar -- especially when it's made perfectly clear what'll happen to our survivor if she doesn't. Roar Uthaug's straightforward plotting in and around the camp creates an inhospitable environment, one of rape, torture and other unsavory fears that'll make the film fairly unpalatable for some watching; this likely won't be an experience you'll want to revisit, though not for what's shown on-screen, really. That concern works as a solid motivator, especially considering the ragged group of men surrounding Signe (and the young girl wandering the camp), and it aligns with the bleak post-epidemic disorder that allowed the death of her family to happen. Uthaug wants the audience uncomfortable with Signe's situation so that her choice becomes obvious when the opportunity arises for her to escape, which affords some suspension of disbelief about her capabilities in order to see her flee.
The performances in Escape are what discern it, especially what will hopefully become an attention-garnering portrayal from newcomer Isabel Christine Andreasen. Her expressions of pain, loss, and fear underscore every sensation Uthaug intends for the audience to experience about Signe's capture and getaway, despite some incredibly on-the-nose dialogue that makes scenes feel obligatory instead of dramatically potent. Cold Prey's Ingrid Bolso Berdal returns as Dagmar, dirtied up and noticeably more feral than her previous roles; her icy eyes and sharp jaw create a menacing yet once-beautiful rogue out of the matriarch, less of an overt villain despite her actions. There's an intriguing dichotomy at work as Signe and Dagmar interact with the young girl at the camp, where the different forms of paternal care -- a nature vs. nurture deal -- form a compelling intensity during the bandits' hunt. Escape relies on blank-slate, two-dimensional entities, but the performances invigorate the chase enough to be compelling.
At its core, though, Escape never really surprises with the directions that the chase takes, where dangerous bridges, flying arrows and hide-and-seek tension through gasp-worthy Norwegian landscapes rarely divert from expectations. Shrewd, seamless visual effects create a grandness of scale to the environment that broadens the scope of Uthaug's film, as well as a heightened visceral punch among craggy mountains and dense woodlands, yet there are few moments where the film truly claims its own individuality. There's no doubt that Signe's maneuvers and development into a more capable survivor are engrossing to behold, but it rings false once her more aggressive instincts take over in heroic fashion, demanding a heavy dose of suspension of disbelief as physicality and danger fuel a brutal climax. Escape plays to the crowd by offering Signe catharsis on a platter, and the steady-handed grit in Uthaug's filmmaking makes that experience more emotionally bracing than it perhaps deserves to be.
Video and Audio:
I've experienced some of John Christian Rosenlund's cinematography in standard-definition before with Troubled Water and The Bothersome Man, and even then the richness and poise of his composition are easy to appreciate at a lower resolution. So, it's no surprise that when he's allowed to navigate Norway's wilderness, including dense stone textures, vast mountainous outlooks, and complex forested expanses, he'd deliver something substantial in high-definition. Escape's 2.35:1-framed photography, often rich in contrast and texture due to the aims of the director, is frequently stunning in Entertainment One's 1080p AVC treatment, where the grime of dirt, the details in facial close-ups, and the subtle fluctuations of mist are adeptly presented. The only problem, and it can be one for larger screens, is an inherent smoothness that's a combination of the digital photography and lackluster detail in the image. Outside of that, though, the beautiful photography looks exquisite.
Surprisingly, the 5-channel Master Audio track -- in its original Norwegian language -- is an incredibly robust and atmospheric outing, where the subtle sounds of wind blowing along soggy fields and the sounds of footsteps and activity in forests engages the entire surround stage. "Rustic" is a good way to describe many of the smaller surround effects, like fire billowing and leaves rustling, which are crisp, faint, and nimble as they move between the front channels and succinctly to the rears. The commanding, often heavy music from Cold Prey's Magnus Biete also traverses the range of sonic extremities too, while the clanking of blades and the throaty hit of a spear drive home some more aggressive elements. Some of the dialogue does get swept into the atmosphere a bit, and there might be a little too much aggression from the sides; however, this is a very clear and robust track that really creates a sense of geography within the environment Roar Uthaug has crafted. English and Norwegian 2-chanel Stereo options are also available with the English subtitles.
Not a lot to work with here. Outside of a series of Deleted Scenes (5:41, HD) and Bloopers (1:51, HD), there is a very brief, narration-free comparison feature on the Visual Effects (2:34, HD) in Escape that will likely surprise those watching with what's revealed about the practical vs. digital landscapes and props. A lengthy, exposition-heavy Theatrical Trailer (3:01, HD) rounds out the supplements.
Escape focuses Roar Uthaug's talent for visceral filmmaking towards a different setting than his slasher picture Cold Prey, taking the audience to historical post-Black Death Norway for a nearly-twentysomething's harrowing survival journey away from volatile, scheming captives. The visual tone, raw energy, and an absorbing pair of performances from Isabel Christine Andreasen and Ingrid Bolso Berdal elevate the simple-focused depiction of two girls' escape, a tense rush through picturesque landscapes that compensates for unlikelihood with sheer edge. It's certainly worth a Rental, especially Entertainment One's rather excellent Blu-ray. I'm certainly looking forward to seeing more from this director.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site