REVIEW: The Escapist [2008]

“Too old to die young”

While The Escapist may not have an all-star A-list cast, it has a pretty recognizable international one. When I saw the names attached to this thing, I couldn’t believe that it had trouble finding distribution. Luckily IFC Films stepped up to the plate and will add it to their VOD schedule to get some exposure for its DVD release. Much like Unknown from a few years back, Rupert Wyatt’s film is a hidden gem of intrigue and suspense. A disjointed narrative tells the story of a ragtag bunch of criminals looking to escape from a maximum security prison so that the orchestrator, Brian Cox’s Frank Perry, can see his daughter before she dies from drug abuse complications on the outside. Each member of the team has a specialty necessary for the escape to work and/or finds his way on the team through trade, whether consciously or not. You do begin to wonder way Wyatt has decided to show it all inter-spliced with flashbacks on how they got together, and when the conclusion is reached you will understand in a surprisingly satisfactory turn of events.

Now these names may mean absolutely nothing to you, but on paper they are quite the collaborative team. Cox leads the way in recognition and stature, followed by a favorite of mine Damian Lewis, (in a smaller role than I had anticipated), and Joseph Fiennes. Add in the familiar faces of Steven Mackintosh, Liam Cunningham, Dominic Cooper, and singer Seu Jorge and you’ve really got something for a film that will probably not be seen by very many people. And that is the real shame here because The Escapist has a lot going for it. With a good marketing push and word of mouth, this had the potential of being a sleeper hit—an indie done well. Hopefully IFC viewers will start spreading excitement and help it to achieve cult status of some sort. It may not be as mainstream as “Prison Break”, but utilizing the same core idea, Wyatt culls together a unique tale that takes more from a film like Jacob’s Ladder than pop culture television.

It all begins with Cox’s Perry, tired and scared, finding Lewis sitting on a cell bed. The next thing we know, Cox joins up with the team as they have just smashed their way into the laundry room, only now he has a bloodied shirt and what can be assumed as a nasty gash to his stomach. We have been dropped right into the escape and now the group is together, putting their plan in motion. But wait, all of sudden we are back in time watching Cox do laundry duty, Cunningham’s Brodie putting on an ant race, and Mackintosh’s Tony berating newcomer Cooper as he arrives at the prison. The discovery that we are about to go on a journey with the escapees, juxtaposed with how they all came together to plan the event, becomes clear. With sharp cuts, yet coherent story continuity, it all makes sense as both halves reach their crescendos at the end. The plotline of the past thread reaches the point at which the film started and that progression leads to the end of the escape simultaneously. Both meld together as one, revealing what has indeed been going on the entire time, possibly not even parallel timeframes after all.

Complete with some very nice camerawork, Wyatt shows some skill as a director. Scenes like that of Mackintosh and Cooper in the showers, fog shrouding their advance into the water, shielding us from what we know is about to happen, really stick out. Even the trip to that end, with Cooper’s Lacey being “helped” by guards and inmates, opening doors for him to “hide” in, plays nicely into the artistry and aesthetic being put on display. The prison is dark and dingy, yet a paradise in comparison with the large expanses of sewers they soon find themselves traveling through. It is a muted palette throughout, making the light at the end of the tunnel (both figuratively and literally) that much brighter in notion and reality. And the way in which we see things happen is with suspense and intrigue. Watching the inmates plan their escape with dominoes as we are shown the real life places they mimic along with extended sequences of rapid process cuts—whether they be making drugs, creating a steel cutter, or even a jailhouse brawl—many instances beg to be appreciated visually as well as for how well they advance the story.

It all ends up being an actors’ movie, though, as the performances shine above all else. Fiennes was almost unrecognizable to me at the start. I thought that was him, but something was off. Only after about thirty minutes did I finally realize it, Fiennes performing as a madman “utility” guy, nothing like the Shakespearean heroes he is most known for. Lewis is great as the menacing prison czar, always with a smile yet demanding the respect of every inmate with his own brand of punishment the guards look the other way on. And I really liked Seu Jorge’s role as Viv Bastista. He is a wild card to the film—librarian/drug cook/witness for Lewis’ Rizza. What really makes them all so elusive and mysterious, however, even as we learn who they are as men, is the fact that we don’t know what has landed any of them in jail. Are they killers? Thieves? Rapists? It doesn’t matter. These men all come together for a common cause and work as a team to achieve it. They sacrifice themselves for the others, just as Cox realizes that freedom doesn’t have to be of the body, but can also be of the mind.

The Escapist 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

photography:
Courtesy of Vertigo Films.

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