Our post-modern age makes it easy (indeed, possibly too easy) to find takes or spins or twists on traditional stories or genre films; what's often harder is finding well-executed examples of those genres in the first place. (Put more bluntly, we've all seen plenty of recent ironic crime films or teen comedies -- but how few of those actually work as crime films or teen comedies?) The British film The Escapist, which made its North American debut at Sundance this year, not only works as a brilliant, twisting existential expansion of the traditional prison break film; it also works as a crackerjack example of the traditional prison break film. Brian Cox stars as Frank, a convict serving a life sentence; after hearing of his daughter's second overdose, he determines that he has to get out, he has to see her: "I have to make things right."
As played by Cox, Frank's hard to understand, but easy to like -- and the other way around, too. Cox is one of our best actors -- he's great in both high art and high trash, and The Escapist offers him a chance to work both ends of that divide. We watch, riveted, as Frank tries to break through the metaphorical wall around his feelings; we watch, riveted, as Frank tries to break through the literal walls keeping him from the outside. Frank's demeanor is pure prison -- a hot-forged alloy of defiance and resignation tempered by time -- but he's also more than just that facade.
Directed and co-written by Rupert Wyatt, The Escapist doesn't slide into the easy clichés of the prison break film; this isn't a celebration of the human spirit's noble capacity for transcendence at the level of the good and glorious but of the human spirit's brute capacity for endurance at the level of guts and gristle. Frank recruits confederates (including Joseph Fiennes, Seu Jorge, Liam Cunningham and Dominic Cooper) to make the escape possible, and he also has to placate the king of the prison, Rizza (Damian Lewis) and Rizza's unhinged brother Tony (Steven Mackintosh). Frank is not only smart but canny; witnessing him left alone with his thoughts in a prison chapel, it's not until later that Wyatt's direction lays out how Frank's quiet moment was in fact frantically busy as he cased the joint, looked for possibilities, searched for objects that could be re-purposed as tools, sussed out the lay of the land, his mind racing behind his poker face.
The Escapist wrings jagged tension out of a fractured timeline -- we open with the beginning of the escape, then flash back to the events leading up to it as it progresses. And while there are a few twists, there are also the pure pleasures of the prison break film -- the plan, the assembling of the team, the tricky acquisition of vital resources, the moment when the plan goes to hell. Wyatt and co-screenwriter Daniel Hardy may be exploring and exploiting the prison break genre, but they're also smart enough to respect it for what it is. And while many of the supporting cast are playing types (Fiennes is a brooding brute of a burglar; Jorge a canny contraband dealer and chemist; Cunningham a dour digger; Cooper a fresh fish newly arrived to the prison) they all manage to add shades of dimension to those archetypes. Lewis and Mackintosh are both chilling, and Cox's work at the center of the film is among the best things he's done. The Escapist wasn't the most meaningful or brilliant thing I saw at Sundance, nor was it the most visceral or exciting, but I'd be hard-pressed to think of another film that balanced so perfectly between those two extremes.