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The Escapist

Dir: Rupert Wyatt

Rating: 2.0

IFC Films

102 Minutes

There is nothing worse than a decent film with a bad ending. Please note that I did not say unhappy ending. What I mean is implausible, laughable and flat-out ridiculous. The bad ending can and will negate everything good that has come before, leaving only a memory of dashed hopes and incredulous disappointment. Failure to follow through on promise is one of the cardinal sins in cinema.

Which is why the conclusion in question is especially difficult to take with The Escapist, a hard-scrabble prison escape thriller featuring a bedrock performance from Brian Cox. Alternating between scenes of the break-out in media res and flashbacks leading up to it, The Escapist mixes exciting scenes of peril with good, old-fashioned character development, striking a good balance between thrills and humanism.

Though prison dramas seem dime-a-dozen since The Shawshank Redemption re-energized the genre, Wyatt populates his film with interesting takes on the tropes that reside behind bars. Sure, the stereotypes are there. Cox is the defeated, old con who has given up, Seu Jorge is the ingenious chemist who has his own drug lab inside, Liam Cunningham is the kind, cuddly type of prisoner, Joseph Fiennes is the glowering malcontent who happens to be quite resourceful picking locks, but Wyatt injects most of these characters with enough subtext and inner life that they feel believable (Fiennes being the exception- he’s all growl, no substance). True, Damian Lewis and Steven Mackintosh are the type of evil, stock characters prison movies love to include, but their time on-screen is thankfully brief (though important).

When Cox’s Frank Perry receives a letter concerning his druggie daughter, he decides to bust out of the joint. Recruiting Fiennes, Cunningham and Jorge is the easy part. Eluding guards, other inmates and then escaping is when the going gets difficult. Also thrown into the mix is new inmate Lacey (Dominic Cooper), a character meant for us to identify with, he must not only survive the deviated affections of Mackintosh, but the bristling neglect of cellmate Cox.

Wyatt makes good use of a soundtrack featuring Leonard Cohen and some rattling incidental sonics. His prison is not the glossed-up microcosm of Oz and the grime and danger is palatable. And yes, prison is also shown as a dehumanizing place where its victims are both behind and outside of the bars. Would Frank’s daughter be a junkie if he wasn’t locked away? Will his neglect strike again with the seemingly innocent Lacey?

The Escapist is not an easy movie to watch. There are scenes of extreme violence, there is implied rape, but those expecting prison to be a place where everyone happily lives ever after are sorely mistaken. And how about that rotten ending? Let’s just say Ambrose Bierce did it better 120 years ago.

by David Harris

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