Most prison films create sympathy for the inmates by emphasizing their innocence, or their strides toward genuine repentance. Rupert Wyatt's The Escapist departs from that trend refreshingly. There are no Andy Dufresnes here, no prisoners correcting an injustice by perpetrating an escape. In fact, there's not a single symbol of hypocrisy or cruelty among the prison figureheads for them to fight against. Rather, Wyatt lets the prisoners establish relative levels of morality based only on the ways they engage with the day-to-day machinations of the prison infrastructure. The rest he leaves to a lean and fast-moving plot focused more on how an escape is planned, rather than whether it is deserved.
There are few actors better suited to navigating the subtle gradations of audience sympathy, without relying on ham-fisted dialogue to drive the points home, than the talented Brian Cox. Cox plays a lifer named Frank Perry, who's gotten so glumly accustomed to prison's rhythms and politics that he doesn't bother anybody, and nobody bothers him. When Frank learns that the daughter he hasn't seen during 14 years of imprisonment (on charges that are never discussed) has had her second near-fatal overdose, he decides to break out and make an attempt to turn her life around. Frank enlists the help of Brodie (Liam Cunningham), Viv (Seu Jorge), and Lenny (Joseph Fiennes) in planning an intricate escape that'll launch in the prison chapel, continue through the laundry, rely on all kinds of air ducts and small openings, and finish in a train station several miles away. Getting wind of the plan is Tony (Steven Mackintosh), a sadistic junkie whose brother, Rizza (Damian Lewis), is the prison's most politically powerful and dangerous inmate. As it turns out, satisfying Tony's blackmail requests, which include having his way with Frank's new cellmate (Dominic Cooper), will prove a bigger obstacle for the conspirators than keeping their plans secret from the guards.
A product of the Irish film industry and shot in Dublin, The Escapist is composed of fairly standard material, but Wyatt gives it new electricity through the structure he uses to tell the story. Wyatt's script (co-written with Daniel Hardy) alternates between two time periods: the week-long lead-up to the escape and the hardscrabble escape as it occurs, which weave in and out of each other onscreen. Because key pieces of information are kept hidden from the viewer, the narrative remains taut and unpredictable. Wyatt has done an excellent job creating this prison world, which is as much filled with menace as matter-of-factness, and seems only slightly (yet intentionally) fantastical in its sense of how the prisoners govern without external authority. The film benefits from a performance by Damian Lewis that capitalizes on the actor's innate ability to be chilling, and some particularly surprising work by Joseph Fiennes, who is as buff and imposing here as he was fey and meek earlier in his career. Kudos also go to Theo Green's sound design, which amps up the intensity level through urgent percussive accompaniment to Joe Walker's crisp editing. But for all its impressive stylistic and structural attributes, The Escapist may have more lingering impact for the surprises it has in store, the emotional peaks that flow naturally from the way the actors and director have fashioned these characters. Cox et al. prove that not knowing a huge amount about their characters does not preclude us from caring a huge amount.