The familiar, classic verities of the prison break movie are loyally observed in “The Escapist,” but with a catch: The break starts at the beginning. Made with solid, mainstream values by tyro director Rupert Wyatt (who co-wrote with Daniel Hardy) and starring such reliable thesps as Brian Cox and Damian Lewis, the pic’s one genre innovation is to continually wind forward to the escape itself, and wind back to events in Blighty prison prior to flight. What will strike some as an overplayed device will excite others, pointing to promising returns for the U.K. April release and U.S. distrib interest.
A motley crew of prisoners is seen frantically trying to break a hole in the ground, and then quickly drop through below. Last to make it down the hole following Lenny (Joseph Fiennes), Brodie (Liam Cunningham), Viv Batista (Seu Jorge) and newbie inmate Lacey (Dominic Cooper) is aging lifer Frank (Cox).
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Action flashes back to recent past, in which youngish Lacey, convicted of a white-collar crime, enters the huge prison block.
As in HBO’s far more violent and charged “Oz,” prison life is tribal, but with individuals who’ve carved out special niches. Frank, Lacey’s cellmate, is somewhat allied with “The Screws,” while cold, heartless Rizza (Lewis) heads “The Cons” with a brutal hand. At first appearing to be a Cons ally, Viv is actually a free player of sorts, secretly concocting drugs.
Frank receives a letter from his wife saying their 20-year-old daughter is suffering from drug addiction; to be by her side after 14 years in prison, he’s determined to escape. He carefully assembles his crew, with Lacey — the object of evil desires by Rizza’s despicable brother Tony (Steven Mackintosh) — an unexpected addition.
The train of situations and relationships is steadily interrupted with the escape itself — or perhaps it’s the other way around — until the pace of the pic’s second half (and particularly the final 30 minutes) rapidly flashes back and forth to a crescendo of emotions that had been previously suppressed.
The effect of being in the midst of the breakout is bracing at first, but soon settles into a routine made somewhat annoying by composer Benjamin Wallfisch’s repetitive jolting cues during cuts in time sequence.
Fracturing the aud’s notion of time is the film’s one modernist ploy, resulting in the experience of the escape as a monumentally Sisyphean task. Production designer Jim Furlong and cinematographer Philipp Blaubach conspire to create a horrific chain of industrial tunnels and chambers through which the crew flee, while the prison is designed as a kind of ghoulish horseshoe-shaped opera house.
While few of these characters rise above type — and some, like Fiennes’ mysteriously near-silent Lenny, not even to that level — Cox calmly registers ranges of steely determination, fatherly care and regret-filled sadness with great authority.
As usual during screenings in Sundance’s large Eccles Theater (a high school auditorium ill-equipped as a cinema), sound was muffled to the point that whole dialogue exchanges were inaudible.