Escapist, The (2009)Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/12/09 10:47:46
SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2009: It's a terrible pun with which to lead off a review of a jailbreak movie, but in this case it is literally true: "The Escapist" hits the ground running.The movie kicks off with the sound of alarms competing with Benjamin Wallfisch's exhilarating score, as four cons scramble to remove a grate from the floor and dive in, while a fifth - lifer Frank Perry (Brian Cox), brings up the rear, obviously injured. The film then jumps back in time, showing us how this came to be. Perry was, if not a model prisoner, no trouble-maker, until he gets word that his daughter has been hospitalized. Not allowed to see her, he hatches a plan to escape - just him, boxer Lenny Drake (Joseph Fiennes), and near-release Brodie (Liam Cunningham), who knows the sewer systems they'll be traversing. It, as these things always do, gets more complicated when Frank gets a new cellmate, Lacey (Dominic Cooper). Sociopath Tony (Steven Mackintosh) has taken a fancy to Lacey, which is bad enough, but Tony's brother is Rizza (Damian Lewis), the crime kingpin who has his fingers in everything that goes on inside. Avoiding his attention means making a deal with Viv Batista (Seu Jorge), the incarcerated chemist who keeps the jail's drug trade going.
Director Rupert Wyatt and co-writer Daniel Hardy divide their time between between the jail and the tunnels, and while that may seem like it may drain the prison scenes of some of their suspense, it's actually a pretty great set-up. The story being told inside the prison is one kind of story, about Frank confronting his decisions to go along when he could stand up, and while the escape is not empty action scenes, it's long enough and different enough that the movie might have seemed to undergo a big shift midway through if the same scenes had been arranged in the obvious chronological order. This way, the two halves of the story can each stand somewhat separately, and the first half does a nice job of holding back just how the second winds up with the set-up it has until something close to the last minute.
This is Brian Cox's movie, and he quietly takes ownership of every scene he's in. There's the sense of a life wasted in the way he plays Perry - his shoulders slumped, a defeated tone in his voice, not even able to muster up any joy at having come up with a clever plan. He's an intelligent man whose greatest accomplishment is that he's considered harmless enough to work in the prison laundry, and as the film goes on, Cox shows us the return of something vital - maybe not pride, per se, and certainly not swagger, but a certain determination. By the end of the movie, we've seen him toughen up, but we're also seeing that he's feeling more, not less. It's not the sort of great performance that announces itself with memorable individual scenes or lines, but by the time the movie ends, it's hard to argue with its greatness: Cox has made himself Frank Perry, and made us care about what happens to him.
The rest of the cast is good, too, although few get the chance to really compete with Cox for the audience's attention. Joseph Fiennes and Liam Cunningham, for instance, are enjoyable enough on-screen to create some tension about whether or not they'll survive once the roles they play in the plot are complete, but there's no mistaking that they're there to be the muscle and the guy with specialized knowledge. Seu Jorge is a little more intriguing as Viv, as he gives the impression that he doesn't particularly like anyone in the prison, and is coolly and amorally considering how much help to give. Dominic Cooper is pretty good as the kid in over his head - good looking and probably able to avoid trouble on the outside, but easy prey for the monsters inside. It's the monsters that do the best job of earning our attention: Steven Mackintosh as the psycho, but especially Damian Lewis as the thoroughly sane, utterly ruthless Rizza. Those familiar with him mainly from his American television series Life may be surprised at just how hard he can look, especially when displaying both great rage and icy control over it.
All these guys are doing their thing in great locations. The jail is perfect, for instance, grimy and gray, a tight fit in every lateral direction but open vertically so that things can be dropped on Frank, or put characters in danger of falling or being pushed of their perch. It's also somewhat timeless - even though there's no electronic locks and it's otherwise a very low-tech, mechanical place, it's hard to nail down a period. That keeps us from second-guessing the story too much, and it ties in nicely with the tunnels, which are real locations (albeit scattered around London and Dublin) that have the look of something larger than life.
They're beautifully shot, and Wyatt makes every step of the escape fraught with tension. From the credits forward, The Escapist feels like a movie from another time, a lost b-movie classic that had ambitions well above its station. It's raw and gritty not because it's willing to raise the bar for what it will show, but because it's got a committed cast and crew trying to make it all work.It's a crying shame that it appears to be (mostly) bypassing theaters in the U.S., because "The Escapist" is a tremendous crowd-pleaser as well as being a clever and thoughtful independent. It not only hits the ground running, but doesn't stop until it reaches its final destination.
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