It’s rare these days to get a movie with such potent gravitas rooted in a simple story. Dynamic acting plastered over a relatively basic framework, like a particularly well-built suburban subdivision, squats pensively at the center of The Escapist. Prison movies — at least ones that aren’t dependent upon soft core pornography — usually fall into one of two camps: guys trying to escape or guys trying to survive. Prison as a backdrop lends itself to monologues and terse dramatic scenes, and director Rupert Wyatt — who also penned the film with Daniel Hardy — makes the most of his cast. The story itself is pretty standard: a lifer needs to escape for noble reasons, so he enlists a ragtag crew to hatch a daring escape. The Escapist splits its time between the escape and the plotting and devolves into a bit of a surrealist existentialism, but frankly this is one of the few environments where you can get away with that. Despite a bit of a wonky cheat of a finale, The Escapist is like a well-stocked prison: it’s not really about the walls as the people who fill them.
Frank Perry (Brian Cox) is a lifer, doing his time stoically, respected by the other cons, not a thug or a bully, but just a thoughtful abider. He doesn’t suffer fools, and he’s not looking to make friends, as evident by the way he treats his new cellmate Lacey (Dominic Cooper). Perry finds out his daughter — whom he last saw 18 years ago when she was but seven — has turned death’s door junkie. He feels he’s the only one who can save her, so he plans an escape with the help of Brodie (Liam Cunningham), another lifer. True escapes require a den of thieves, so they end up recruiting the local drug dealer Batista (Seu Jorge) and a bare-knuckle boxer Lenny (Joseph Fiennes). The plan slowly unfolds until they draw the unwanted attention of Tony (Steven Mackintosh), a spastic junkie and younger brother to the menacing Rizza (Damian Lewis), who rules the prison like a violent version of Howdy Doody. Tony takes a fancy to young Lacey and also to a massive dope shipment he wants from Batista, so he basically makes hell for everyone.
The film bounds back and forth in flashback from the actual escape to the organization, so there’s never any tension involving whether or not they will escape, but whether or not the escape is successful. It become a low-budget Lord of the Rings, tooling around in the underdark beneath the prison and the access tunnels — hunted by faceless guards who appear only as flashlights in the distance — each falling to some Gooniesque progression of terror. As I said, it gets a bit hokey and surrealist. The Arthouse atmosphere pervades the scene like a hoity toity fart.
The real joy of The Escapist comes from the performances. It felt like watching a particularly quality theater piece, something like “Band of Brothers” or “Oz.” Thankfully, Wyatt chooses to avoid a looming warden in lieu of a few corrupt hacks, but mostly he manages to pull off the conceit of eternity behind bars in a scant two hours. Even Shawshank — the supreme being of incarceration cinema — had to spill over the two hours line. Brian Cox has become even more reliable than Morgan Freeman for quality acting. No matter what piece of crap he’s in (cough — Super Troopers — cough), he manages to exceed the material. Most of this film rides on his expressions or a few wordless scenes. It’s hard to pull off drama without some sort of primal screaming or rant, but he manages deftly. Seu Jorge is always a pleasant surprise and despite knowing he was in the film, I completely forgot it was him until the end credits. I was really impressed with Damian Lewis and Joseph Fiennes, though. Fiennes has no easy task playing a tough guy, and he carries a palpable ferocity through every scene. He’s crazy smart, which is nearly impossible to pull off without some sort of Murdock helicopter spazzing behavior, but again The Escapist opts for a Mametian sparsity. Lewis chilled me to the fucking bone. Rizza isn’t a yeller; he carries this quiet grim evil in him. With the clean, bright-red, close cut part hair, he looks like a clean-cut fella, and you wonder why everyone is supposed to be afraid of him. He quickly quells that, merely with a gesture or a quiet shushing. You realize why men would cut off their own finger without screaming just to avoid his temper.
The Escapist is far from a perfect film, sort of getting as much mileage as it can out of its astounding cast. Which, let’s face it, is going to get you pretty far. It’s not going to really make a splash cinematically, so much as watching a particularly excellent version of a standard. This is what draws comparison to Shakespeare, though Sam Shepard might be the more apt draw. It’s a story we’ve all seen a thousand times, but told really well.
Brian Prisco lives in a pina down by the mer-port of Burbank, by way of the cheesesteak-laden arteries of Philadelphia. Any and all grumblings can be directed to priscogospel at hotmail dot com.