To watch Escape from Tomorrow (2013) is to watch a film that shouldn’t exist. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with the subject matter, although it does delve into some uncomfortable spots. It’s not a film that’s been drastically neutered by the censoring agencies (although there are a few clever misdirects), and there weren’t any major stars to wrangle or diva demands that the filmmakers were forced to overcome. The reason that Escape from Tomorrow shouldn’t exist, is that it almost the entire film was shot without permission (guerilla style) in Disneyworld. Furthermore, it’s a slow burn, simulacra-busting nightmare exploration of one man’s troubled psyche, and it’s this week’s Pick of Online Film here on culturised.

Escape from Tomorrow is, first and foremost, a surrealistic exercise. Think if you gave young David Lynch and Terrence Malick free reign over everything Disney and this is what they might come up with. The story follows a middle class Midwestern family, appropriately termed “the Whites”, on the last day of their vacation at Disneyworld. The film spends most of its time following family patriarch, Jim (Roy Abramsohn) who at the start of the film discovers through a phone call that he has lost his job. This moment kicks off the psychological equivalent of the boat trip up the river in Apocalypse Now. Joining Jim for the ride are his wife Emily (Elena Schuber) and his son Elliot (Jack Dalton) and daughter Sara (Katelyn Rodriguez).

Escape from Tomorrow veers wildly from set piece to set piece throughout, and along the way we are treated to such delights as Jim hallucinating demonic faces on various ride characters, his affair with a women that possesses some sort of magic jewel, a very strange southern fat man on a scooter, and the mysterious “cat flu” that is running rampant in the park – which causes nurses to weep out of fear and concern for the patrons. By far the most dynamic and uncomfortable of these scenes is Jim’s strange – and not entirely unrequited – fascination with two French teenagers. Jim follows the girls (who are presumably underage though it’s never addressed) around the park for several hours and they may just know more than they let on.

The film’s tagline (as seen on the poster above a bleeding three-fingered white glove of a certain iconic rodent) is “Bad things happen everywhere”, and this is undeniably applicable to theme parks. Think of every terrible rumor you’ve ever heard about amusement parks, Disneyworld included; these are present in the film. The man decapitated on a roller coaster? Yup, it’s there. Those turkey legs that looks a little too big to be realistic? Yeah they’re from emus. Those princesses we see who are a little too friendly with the businessmen? They’re actually high price escorts. What first time director/writer Randy Moore has done is taken every seedy thought you could have about the land of fairy tale castles and puffy cartoon characters and breathed life into them on screen.

But he doesn’t stop his dread filled oozing takedown with the House of Mouse; Escape from Tomorrow is largely unconcerned with Disney despite its setting. The park serves as the ultimate playground for Moore’s real ambition: a bruising disassembling of the white American middle class nuclear family, and more specifically its patriarch. Jim is a pretty dislikable person: endlessly smarmy, inattentive to anyone in the family that’s not his daughter, and completely self-assured in his own superiority over the other inhabitants of the park. He’s given opportunity time and again to redeem himself from these faults and nearly always fails to do so. Earlier in this piece I compared the journey in this film to Apocalypse Now and the association holds up. Captain Willard in the 1979 classic is completely dedicated to reigning in Colonel Kurtz, even as his journey up the river reveals a series of horrors that drive him towards breaking point. Jim faces his descent from sanity with the same grim-faced determination.

To demonstrate this we must return to his numerous encounters with the two aforementioned French teenagers. First glimpsed as the family joins them on the train from the hotel to the park the two are at the center of quite a few of the missteps and bad communications between the family members. One such moment occurs later, when Jim and Elliot pass the girls on the same ride in cars passing different directions. The girls greet the two with a cheery “bonjour” and Elliot asks why they’ve been following around the pretty girls all day. Jim, caught by his progeny in his lusting after the unattainable, doesn’t really respond. Elliot asks if his mommy is beautiful and Jim responds with a, “Yeah in an Emily Dickenson sort of way.” This (understandably) comes back to bite Jim later (Mama’s Boys and Daddy’s Girls abound in this film), but is just one example of his numerous, usually lust-based flaws.

Moore doesn’t just mark Jim as a failure though, every adult male park patron with a speaking role has some sort of physical injury: Jim breaks his toe on corner table, the fat man in the scooter has a neck brace, even a guy with a minor interaction with Jim in the bathroom has a cast on his hand. Perhaps the reason for this is too convey to the viewer that Jim is not alone in his journey. Each of the men Jim interacts with is in some way toxic. To give just two examples, the man on the scooter is downright creepy, referring to Sara as a “little angel” and sucking suggestively on an ice lolly, and the man from the bathroom has the smallest speaking part but his interaction with his son is certainly brusque. Jim’s broken toe can be seen as the a physical manifestation of his break from reality, made all the more apparent when he removes the bandages and bloody sock to rinse them in the bathroom: his wounded conscious laid bare for all too see. Moore’s ire with the male population seems to ready to constantly bubble over, and only time will tell what exactly he’ll put Jim through.

Any serious examination of Escape from Tomorrow must address how and where it was filmed. It’s true the crew did not have permission to film in Disneyworld, as there’s no way the company would ever allow such affront to its brand as the film posits. This is the same company that are so litigious they have repeatedly changed copyright law in order to keep their mascot from falling into the public domain, after all.[1] The guerilla style filmmaking is nearly always apparent, but I would be remiss if I didn’t state that there are several moments within the film where I found myself asking, “How the hell did they get away with that?” That being said there are some moments when the film shows its seams. Several times the actors are clearly filmed against green screens that have recorded locations with Disneyworld projected on them and every now and then the film will elect to shoot from just outside the cameras ability to clearly focus, which makes the transitions a little jarring.

But both of these issues can be dismissed relatively easily because of the film’s heavy content of surrealism and general strangeness; and the decision to film in black and white also helps to hide some of the more egregious moments. The question Moore has seriously posed though, by filming within the confines of Disneyworld, is one about gimmickry and artistic integrity. Is it hard to watch a film that has so many iconic locations, and is so clearly taking aggressive aim at the comforting simulacrum (by which I mean a hyperreal facsimile of our own reality, in the case of Disneyworld these are the different “lands” and the overly kind employees that populate them) we’ve created in Florida? Does it take away from the films artistic statement? The answer I would have to give is a relatively unsatisfactory one: a little bit of yes and a little bit of no. I don’t think this film could work at any other location, except maybe Las Vegas or Mall of America, and so for the statement to come across clearly it needed to be made within Disneyworld. But I also think that part of the reason I enjoyed Escape from Tomorrow so much is the sheer gumption, the very boldness of the undertaking.

Escape from Tomorrow is surely not for everyone; a friend of mine described it eloquently as, “surrealist AF.” But, I found it certainly of note. If you hate Disney, it’s a film for you. If you think that there’s just got to be something rotten at the core of a place that puts such an emphasis of being sweet, it’s a film for you. If you’ve ever just wanted to slap the slimy dude in your office (and also want to see him bound to the toilet for a bit), it’s a film for you. It may not be a universal film, but it certainly holds appeal for a lot of us and that’s why it’s this week’s Pick of Online Film.

[1] Steve Schlackman, “How Mickey Mouse Keeps Changing Copyright Law”, Art Law Journal 15th February 2014.