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Sundance Film Festival
PARK CITY — There’s a lot of talent on view in “The Escapist,” though one wishes it were put to better use.
Rupert Wyatt’s feature directorial debut, which had its premiere here, pays homage to a venerable tradition of movies about desperate men in prison searching for a way to break out.
The always compelling Brian Cox (who also served as executive producer) plays Frank, a lifer who learns that his daughter nearly died of a drug overdose; he decides to escape in order to help her. Frank enlists a group of fellow cons to aid him in the escape through sewers and tunnels. So far, so good. We look forward to an exciting adventure in the tradition of “The Great Escape” or “Escape From Alcatraz.”
But “Escapist” plays more like “Memento.” The time sequence is jumbled so that we keep cutting back and forth from the harrowing escape to earlier scenes of the men in their cells struggling with a typical contingent of prison creeps and bullies. The result of all this fancy intercutting is that the film never generates much suspense. Watching it is the cinematic equivalent of running in place; as the escape is constantly interrupted by scenes back inside the prison, we feel as if we’re never moving.
Wyatt (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Daniel Hardy) tries to compensate for this inherently static structure by battering us with deafening sound effects and a good deal of bloody violence. In one scene, a con cuts off his own thumb as a form of deference to the prison boss (Damian Lewis). Another inmate (Joseph Fiennes) is a boxer who participates in a brutal boxing match. Then there’s the inevitable prison homosexuality, including a bizarre drag parade and a rape that ends in violent retaliation.
All of this mayhem keeps us watching, but it would be hard to describe the experience as pleasurable. Cox has an intensely brooding presence, though the script is awfully spare in sketching out his background. In fact, we learn little about any of the characters, so it’s fortunate that such excellent actors as Fiennes, Lewis, Dominic Cooper and Liam Cunningham are on hand to add texture.
Wyatt makes excellent use of the prison set, and the editing by Joe Walker certainly provides forward momentum.
Toward the end, the pieces of the puzzle come together unexpectedly and rather movingly. It turns out that what we have been watching is not quite as straightforward as it seemed to be. Much of the action is an internal drama playing out in one character’s head, and the story turns out not to be so much one of an escape as of self-sacrifice and redemption. Seeing the film a second time in light of the climactic revelations would probably be rewarding, but it’s unlikely that many viewers will be motivated to go back and replay the action.
The denouement to “Escapist” is provocative, but it’s a classic case of too little, too late.
U.K. Film Council, Irish Film Board,
Parallel Films and Picture Farm
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Screenwriters: Rupert Wyatt, Daniel Hardy
Producers: Adrian Sturges, Alan Moloney
Executive producers: Brian Cox, Tristan Whalley
Director of photography: Philipp Blaubach
Production designer: Jim Furlong
Music: Benjamin Wallfisch
Co-producer: Susan Mullen
Costume designer: Maeve Paterson
Editor: Joe Walker
Frank Perry: Brian Cox
Lenny Drake: Joseph Fiennes
Brodie: Liam Cunningham
Viv Batista: Seu Jorge
Lacey: Dominic Cooper
Tony: Steven Mackintosh
Rizza: Damian Lewis
Running time — 103 minutes
No MPAA rating
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Portia de Rossi
James Gordon Meek