When faced with a dire situation, one often has at least two options. There's the direct solution which may require us to tackle some unpleasantness head on. There's usually also a more indirect approach which allows us some evasive maneuvers but ironically requires more work to execute. In his directorial debut, Rupert Wyatt demonstrates how the appearance of choice may simply be an illusion which can be undone by forces outside of one's control.
As the film opens, we meet Frank Perry (Brian Cox) who is a lifer in a London prison. He's a grizzled veteran who has learned how to maintain a low profile and avoid conflict behind bars. All this changes when he receives word that his daughter has become a drug addict and experienced a near-fatal overdose. This spurs him to action and he decides that he must break out of prison so that he can talk to her and set her life straight. In order to execute his plan, he enlists the aid of fellow prisoners Brodie (Liam Cunningham), Lenny Drake (Joseph Fiennes) and Viv Batista (Seu Jorge). Throwing a spanner in the works are Rizza (Damian Lewis) and his brother, Tony (Steven Mackintosh). Rizza is the resident bully who has an understanding with the prison guards enabling him to rule over the other prisoners with an iron fist. Tony is far more overt in his aggression as he takes advantage of his relationship with Rizza to terrorize the inmates. This is made obvious in a chillingly subtle scene where he sexually assaults a new prisoner, Lacey (Dominic Cooper) in the prison shower. When Lacey decides to stand up for himself the repercussions are felt by the entire inmate population and threaten to derail Frank's plans for escape.
The plot as I've described it suggests a gritty character piece in the vein of Shawshank Redemption but does nothing to capture the throbbing urgency propelling the film towards its surprising conclusion. This momentum is achieved by the narrative of the film which is structured around two distinct timelines. Sequences of Frank and his gang planning the logistics of the escape are intercut with scenes of the escape itself. The high energy escape scenes prevent the planning scenes from becoming too mired in the grit of prison life while the planning scenes give us enough time with the characters to become truly invested in their collective fate. When working in tandem, the past and present feed off each other to compelling effect. A simple but effective example of this is the scene where Lenny gets into a brutal fistfight with another inmate. It isn't immediately obvious why Lenny is fighting, especially considering he gets the tar beaten out of him. The payoff comes when we realize that he managed to knock out a diamond studded tooth from his opponent's mouth. This diamond comes in handy when he has to cut through a hard metal surface during the escape sequence. This is just one of many instances where the attentive viewer is rewarded by the script's cleverness. The boldest illustration of the script's brass balls is the final act reveal but more on that later.
Lest I get bogged down in the machinations of the script, let me place a sharper focus on the characters being put through the wringer. Despite Frank being the titular escapist, this is very much an ensemble piece with a number of fleshed out supporting characters. As the motivating force of his crew, Brian Cox brings real gravitas to a role that was written specifically for him. Frank Perry has invested so much time and effort blending into the background, that the sudden decision to escape forcefully jolts him out of his comfort zone. It's a tough role with clarity of motive being the only driving force for a normally ambivalent character. Fortunately Cox is up for the challenge and demonstrates why he is one of the most dependable character actors of our time. Cunningham has the less showy role of Brodie but brings an unexpected sensitivity to it. Brodie is the only other lifer in the group besides Perry and consequently he has the best understanding of what Perry is going through. Fiennes has an uncharacteristically flashy role in Lenny Drake and he goes for the gusto. Drake is a twitchy, raw bundle of nerves but Fiennes makes sure we see the intelligence lurking behind the character's darting eyes. Jorge is sufficiently mysterious as Batista, the resident chemist who concocts drugs that act as currency among the inmates. Cooper portrays Lacey as a wounded child who finds hidden reservoirs of strength during an ill-timed burst of violence. Considering his actions are the catalyst for the climax, his expression of lost innocence is quietly heartbreaking.
Playing opposite our protagonists are Damian Lewis and Steven Mackintosh as two sides of the same bad penny. Mackintosh's portrayal of Tony is pure Freudian id made human while Lewis turns Rizza into a cold reptilian being, whose smiling mask slips whenever he strikes. They are both menacing in their own way. While I wouldn't want to run into Tony in a dark alley, I wouldn't trust Rizza even in a crowded restaurant. Even though Tony sets up the climax with his violation of Lacey, it is Rizza's sense of vengeance that threatens to consume Perry's world. Suffice it to say that together Mackintosh and Lewis bring a frightening uncertainty to the proceedings and cast real doubts over the fate of the escapees. Speaking of the fate of the escapees, allow me to make a quick note regarding the film's final reveal without going into detail. I suspect that the final few scenes of the film will quickly divide audiences as some will say that it has been done before. While that is true, I contend that it works perfectly in the context of this film. Where most films would be content to simply pull the rug out from under the audience, The Escapist manages to strike a well-earned tone of duality. Rather than simply resetting the clock, we have an escape that is simultaneously complete and stunningly unfinished. Even as a few loose ends are tied up, other strands are left visibly frayed, begging our imagination for closure. It's a bold conclusion that is the final stamp on director Wyatt's brilliant debut.