If you think the only possible endings to a prison-escape movie are “They get away” or “They don’t get away,” then you haven’t seen “The Escapist,” a new British nail-biter about convicts busting their way out to freedom.
Lacing together bleakly procedural step-by-step obstacles in the escape process with informative flashbacks that tell us how this elaborate plan came to be, “The Escapist” maintains an atmosphere of suspense and excitement, even though it’s more interested in the mechanics of the jailbreak than in the lives of the men performing it.
Brian Cox stars as Frank, a lifer who, for the first time in 14 years, gets a response to one of the regular letters he sends his wife. She writes to tell him that their daughter, long estranged from Frank, has become a drug addict and is near death from an overdose. This news, and his desire to make amends to the child he hasn’t seen in years, inspires him to start putting together an escape plot.
Unlike many other prison movies, this one never shows us the warden and treats the guards as, at most, minor inconveniences; all the conflict occurs with other prisoners. Those helping out Frank in his quest include Brodie (Liam Cunningham), who seems to know where all the sewers go; boxer Lenny (Joseph Fiennes), who winds up throwing a courtyard fight for reasons that make sense later; well-connected trustee Viv (Seu Jorge, who sang all those David Bowie songs in Portuguese in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”) and fresh-faced James (Dominic Cooper), a recent arrival and Frank’s new cellmate.
Making trouble for our rag-tag gang of escapists is the twitchy and violent Tony (Steven Macintosh), who immediately sets upon new fish James soon after his internment, and Tony’s brother Rizza (Damian Lewis), the vicious power-broker running the show behind bars.
Director Rupert Wyatt and his co-writer Daniel Hardy have neatly trimmed the fat from this story — there’s almost no character, incident or briefly-seen visual cue that doesn’t somehow enhance the plot or set up a surprise or key revelation later on. We never see the prisoners go outdoors, which adds to the film’s suffocating sense of oppressive claustrophobia. (Viewers who get uncomfortable in small spaces might want to avert their eyes during the cutaway shots of the escaping prisoners crawling through breezeways and drainage pipes.)
Also integral to the film’s impact is the strong ensemble that Wyatt has assembled, from the major players — why isn’t the superb Joseph Fiennes getting gigs as high-profile as his brother Ralph? — down to supporting actors like wrestler Sheamus O’Shaunessy, who makes quite an impact in just a few scenes.
Admittedly, I would have preferred that the film come equipped with English subtitles for American ears that can’t parse some of the thick U.K. dialects being used. It’s a testament to “The Escapist’s” intricate storytelling apparatus, however, that even when I couldn’t discern what was being said for an entire scene, it wasn’t long before I was able to catch back up with the plot.
Don’t be surprised to find yourself hanging on every word, even if you can’t always tell what word it is.