Director – Rupert Wyatt, Screenplay – Daniel Hardy & Rupert Wyatt, Producers – Alan Moloney & Adrian Sturges, Photography – Philipp Blaubach, Music – Benjamin Wallfisch, Visual Effects Supervisors – Justin Cornish & Brooke Lyndon-Stanford, Special Effects Supervisors – Kevin Byrne & Paul Mann, Production Design – Jim Furlong. Production Company – UK Film Council/Bord Scannan na Heireann (Irish Film Board)/Parallel Films/Picture Farm.
Brian Cox (Frank Perry), Joseph Fiennes (Lenny Drake), Dominic Cooper (James Lacey), Liam Cunningham (Brodie), Steven Mackintosh (Tony Batista), Damian Lewis (Rizza Batista), Seu Jorge (Viv Batista)
The aging Frank Perry is serving a life sentence in jail. When he receives the news that his daughter has become a drug addict, he makes the decision to escape and go to her aid. He gathers a group of four inmates, each bringing different skills. Together they conceive of a plan to break through the grating in the showers and escape into the sewers beneath.
The Escapist was a British-Irish made film that premiered at Sundance and did the rounds of various international film festivals, even some limited theatrical engagements in the US. It was the first feature-length film for British director Rupert Wyatt who subsequently went on to some success in the US mainstream, most notably with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and the alien invasion film Captive State (2019), as well as producing the tv remake of The Exorcist (2016-8). Wyatt apparently wrote the film at the behest of Brian Cox who wanted a decent leading role for himself.
The Escapist is largely a prison escape drama. At this, it works rather well. While not exactly breaking new ground in the treatment of any of its themes, it does all of the familiar scenes involving the planning of the escape, the recruitment of the team, the sadistic inmates, the breakout and the to-the-death struggle to escape reasonably effectively. The script has been staged with a double-structure – one concerning the actual breakout, the other the lead-up to and planning of it. This comes with a purpose (more on that in the last paragraph).
The ensemble cast that has been brought together has some high-power names, all of whom come together to deliver finely shaded performances. The greatest surprise for me was Dominic Cooper who has subsequently carved out a career as a vapid pretty boy who always plays behind a cocky smirk but here gives a solid and effective performance as the wet-behind-the-ears cellmate of Brian Cox. I always have a liking for Liam Cunningham’s flinty toughness, while there is another fine performance that broods with danger from Damian Lewis as the brother of the gang leader.
It is not until it reaches the twist that comes at the very ending that The Escapist reveals it is also a fantasy film. [PLOT SPOILERS]. In this case, it reveals itself as a deathdream fantasy. This is a sub-genre that has derived from Ambrose Bierce’s famous short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1891), filmed as the celebrated short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1961). In the story, a man miraculously escapes the hangman’s noose and runs home to his family, only for his neck to snap as he arrives and it be revealed that all of this was a dream in his dying moments.
This type of twist ending, which this author has named the deathdream, has become commonplace to the point of cliche on film with the likes of Carnival of Souls (1962), Seizure/Queen of Evil (1974), The Survivor (1981), Sole Survivor (1983), Siesta (1987), Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Final Approach (1991) and A Pure Formality (1994). In particular, the huge hit of The Sixth Sense (1999) gave birth to a number of imitators over the next few years with the likes of The Others (2001), Soul Survivors (2001), The Brown Bunny (2003), Dead End (2003), I Pass for Human (2004), Hidden (2005), Reeker (2005), Stay (2005), Passengers (2008), The Haunting of Winchester House (2009), Someone’s Knocking at the Door (2009), The Last Seven (2010), Wound (2010), A Fish (2012), Leones (2012), 7500 (2014), The Abandoned/The Confines (2015) and Shadow People (2016), which between them have succeeded in rendering the Dead All Along twist a cliche.
[MORE PLOT SPOILERS]. It does work with reasonable effect here even if it is the film’s least satisfying aspect where it suddenly becomes apparent that the entire second strand of the story from the moment where Brian Cox belatedly joins the escape party with a wound in his side was in fact his dying dream.