Skimming the synopsis of this film you might find yourself slightly tempted to scoff at the premise – I know I did: “Frank Perry is a lifer; in prison for the rest of his natural born days. He’s never had a problem with that: he did the crime; he’ll do the time. Until now…” You’ve seen it all before right: hardened-yet-misunderstood con has paid his penance and must now realize justice for himself, by breaking out and finding his place, yet again, in the world beyond prison… yawn! But, in truth, this little blurb does nothing for the raw, fast-paced and gritty brilliance of The Escapist. In fact, the film never over-sentimentalizes the characters. Nor does it even spend much on the characterization. Rather, The Escapist, along with its stunning visuals and pulsing soundtrack, is focused upon one thing, and one thing alone: the great escape.
The film’s axel rotates around inmate Frank Perry (Brian Cox), a ripened and stoic lifer, in for we know not what. Twelve years into his sentence in an anonymous London jail, he is resigned to living out his days working the prison laundry, and emitting the occasional afflicted sigh. But his institutionalized daze is disturbed by news from the outside world, that his only and beloved but junkie daughter is critically ill, following another overdose. Spotting a loose panel in the confession box, a previous hatch in the washing machine, and a handy link to the sewers, Frank impulsively decides that he must escape to see her. Recruiting the help of his fellow inmates Brodie (Liam Cunningham), resourceful Lenny (Joseph Fiennes), ‘new fish’ Lacey (Dominic Cooper), and dreadlocked drug dealer, Viv Batista (Seu Jorge), the fearless five put the plan into motion.
The film is certainly neither short on drama, nor grimy reality. Set against the austere back drop of a cut-throat London prison, the jail itself is a timeless, archetypal space. The director is careful to keep the period indefinite, sending his inmates into a clanking and dilapidated world of bars and beige that could belong in any decade of the last century. The cells are cramped, the inmates brutal, and with sadistic thugs running the show, Frank’s daughter soon becomes just one of many reasons to escape.
When all said and done though, the set-up remains fairly simple – tried and tested: it’s the old prison break-out routine, with five convicts joining forces to tunnel out through the sewers, and various hindrances thrown in.
But it is the structure of the film that really marks The Escapist out as something unique. The film uses two parallel storylines that eventually unite to create the plot in its entirety. Director Rupert Wyatt opens his film midway through the escape and then cuts back-and-forth between the break-out and the events that lead up to it.
You are made to think on your toes: backwards, then forwards, filling in the gaps between the obstacle-ridden execution of the plan, and its earlier conception.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the flashback sequence is expertly executed: rich visuals, combined with impressive editing result in a forceful, biting and inspiring film. And there is masterful tension throughout – just when you expect one of the time-frames (the plot of escape) to catch up with the other (the flight itself), another unforeseen disaster occurs…
Since this film relies heavily on the power of its editing, it can at times feel a little contrived, and some may initially find it a tad confusing; but as the film wears on, the two narratives increasingly inform and compliment one another. The ending might also strike you as slightly too artistic, depending on your tolerance for transcendental and interpretable twists. But it does finally tie all the loose threads together and enriches events further through a thought-provoking existential angle that demands an immediate repeat viewing.
Brian Cox, is marvelous as Frank, embodying a quiet dignity and thoughtful performance. The rest of the cast also provide authentic support as his fellow inmates, each epitomizing varying degrees of convincing malice. Steven Mackintosh is chilling as a predatory prison king pin, Joseph Fiennes has finally broken free from his pretty-boy type casting and Dominic Cooper is incredibly sympathetic as their penitentiary prey.
This is one of those films that you go in knowing little about, and emerge thunderstruck by its emotional power and timbre. You should definitely give this riveting, convincing and intelligent drama a look. For there was a time when Escape from Alcatraz was considered to be the prison-break movie to define all prison-break movies, and nothing could top it. But the time has come for something else to take its place. And The Escapist, with its intense storyline, vivid characters, and continued tension, may well be the movie to do just that.
Starring: Brian Cox, Liam Cunningham, Joseph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper, Damian Lewis, Seu Jorge
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Run time: 102 minutes
Distributor: Parallel Films & Picture Farm Productions