Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport and get your shots, because this week we’re heading to…
Prison movies come in three flavors. Some focus on the the harsh realities of prison life including the rapes, the drugs, and the slippery soap. Some focus on the scientific fact that women’s prison are filled to the rim with hot lesbians who take time to service the warden and guards in between trying to convert the sweet (and innocent) new girl. And then there are the prison escape movies. Of the three types, these are my favorites because of the inherent suspense and drama behind the planning and execution of the escape itself (although I’ll always have a soft spot for lesbians behind bars). The Escapist, as you can probably deduce by the title, falls into that last category.
Frank Perry (Brian Cox) is a lifer used to a daily routine that includes an ever-growing collection of letters to his family, all returned to sender. One day a letter arrives that he didn’t write, and it’s filled with bad news. His daughter is dying. Perry decides he needs to see her and immediately sets about finding a way out. The movie proceeds to switch back and forth between the planning and the actual escape in progress, alternating from the suspense and build-up to the action of men on the run. Perry’s joined by a few other inmates, most of them included due to the various pieces of knowledge they can bring to the table. Lenny Drake (Joseph Fiennes) is a lock-picking thief, Viv Batista (Seu Jorge) is the local drug manufacturer, and Brodie (Liam Cunningham) knows the sewer system that runs beneath the prison that just might connect them to a nearby tube station. Of course, no plan is foolproof…
First-time director Rupert Wyatt also co-wrote the film with Daniel Hardy, and he shows an interesting eye for both the bleak and dreamlike visuals as well as the alternating narrative threads. The pre-escape scenes occasionally threatened to grow tiresome, but as if sensing the impending boredom Wyatt knows exactly when to switch to the action of the escape itself. Aside from the timing, Wyatt’s edits are also stylistically impressive as locations and events in one thread trigger the move into the other fairly seamlessly. The film could have benefited from a longer running time to accommodate some of the side characters who are integral to the story but aren’t given enough time to actually make their mark dramatically. Information is missed, importance is diminished, and plot holes seem bigger than they actually are.
Cox is a fantastic character actor with a weathered and worn exterior, used to playing tough guys and intellectual cannibals, but his emotional range here is quite a change from the norm. He owns the film and his performance alone makes it worth viewing. The remainder of the cast all serve to support him and most do so quite well. One of the standouts is a bulked-up, angry, and barely recognizable Fiennes, and another is Damian Lewis (“Life”) as the menacing Rizza, the most powerful and dangerous convict inside. Both men play hard-asses but do so with completely different styles.
Prison escape movies usually follow a fairly linear path. 1) The prisoner is innocent, or if guilty they’re incredibly likable. 2) They have a strong motivation to attempt the escape. 3) The escape plan must be creative and fairly intricate. 4) There will be multiple challenges threatening to derail the escape from the planning stage through to the act itself. The best film of the genre is The Shawshank Redemption, and any claim to the contrary is wrong. (Sorry Alex!) The Escapist sits further down the list, after Papillon, The Great Escape, Chicken Run, and a few others. A great movie? No. An interesting movie with a great performance? Yes.
The Escapist was released last week on R2 DVD. It’s scheduled for a limited US release from IFC on April 3rd. The international trailer is below.
Bottom Line: Strong performances and an interesting (if not entirely successful) ending save The Escapist from mediocrity. Cox impresses in a rare leading role showing emotions usually absent from his other films. Every other role is a supporting one and capably acted, with two standouts being Fiennes and Lewis. The movie meanders at times and confuses at others, but is engaging overall. The ending valiantly tries to shake things up a bit, but depending on the viewer may actually succeed only in raising more questions.
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