"The Escapist" is Rupert Wyatt's directorial debut and he knocks it right out of the park. This is a complex film that could easily have b ecome another hackneyed jailhouse yarn--the characters are certainly familiar enough--or cheesy "busting out of the joint" action flick. It is neither, and the multi-layered plot reveals itself in such a way that we accept the denouement without feeling cheated or misled.
Wyatt, who also co-wrote the film, has the perfect star for his maiden voyage. Brian Cox always delivers a fine performance. He is low key and, like a chameleon, can morph himself--physically and spiritually--into whatever the role requires. In this case, he plays a tired old con who has been locked up for a long time with no hope of getting out. Frank Perry is a lifer resigned to his fate, he lives in a dull haze, keeping out of trouble, making no friend, making no enemies. When he learns that his daughter has become addicted to drugs and is dying, he shakes off his torpor, breaking out of his mental prison and concocting a plan to escape the physical one. So much in this film goes unsaid...we see by a stack of returned letters that she refuses contact with him, but we don't know why. There is no backstory here. We are observers of the moment. Despite their estrangement, he wants to find his little girl and save her.
The Amazon blurb for this fine film could not be more misleading. It describes Perry as "a tough lifer" who battles Rizza, the brutal prison kingpin. He's not tough, he's frightened. Rizza is played with chlling, dead-eyed itensity by Damian Lewis. Far from battling him, Perry is terrified in his presence...his hands shake and he avoids eye contact.
We never know what landed Perry in jail...his crime is never revealed. None of prisoners' misdeeds are mentioned. We learn the length of their sentences and nothing more. We judge them only as we see them. In a film where actions indeed speak louder than words, dialogue is kept to a minimum. An action movie in the best sense of the word.
The film hopscotches back and forth in time between the events leading up to the escape and the escape itself. This is such a difficult maneuver to perform well. It's either too gimmicky or it indicates last minute fancy footwork to clarify a story that is poorly told. In this case, it is neither. There are hints to tease us, because ultimately, things are not quite as they appear, but no chicanery. We see things from different perspectives but there is no telegraphing of the ending, no AHA moments. We just see what we see. Back and forth. Wyatt has fun with his audience, using certain repeated motifs...a butterfly, for instance, that make no sense at the time, but by the film's conclusion take us where he wanted us to go.
Philipp Blaubach's camerawork is arresting. It is almost a physical presence, another character in the film. The cinematogrphy and lighting do a knockout job of conveying the cold emptiness of this crumbling pile of cement, rust and peeling paint. There are deep shadows, suggesting hidden agenda. And where there is light, it is usually harsh and cruel, a metaphor of course, for life in those dismal cages. But every so often, Blaubach bathes the set in a buttery yellow light. We can feel its warmth and it knocks us off guard with its brief and pathetic illusion of optimism.
Benjamin Wallfisch provides a soundtrack that underscore the emotional impact of the film. Leonard Cohen's "The Partisan" and Coldplay's "The Escapist" are the perfect undercurrents. Brian Cox, lying on his bunk singing "Butcher Boy" is another memorable moment in a film that has more than its share.