Thrillers built around secrets can be tricky things.
For one thing, it sort of creates a situation where anyone who tells you that the film is built around a secret is automatically a prick, since the moment you know there's a secret, you start looking for the secret or trying to get ahead of it, and it can detach you from the narrative you're watching as you get all hung up on the structure of the script.
But then there's also the fact that films built around secrets are rarely movies you rewatch, because there's nothing to them once you know what the secret is. Filmmakers are willing to sacrifice authentic behavior and internal character logic to their twists, and the more you watch some of these films, the more the inconsistencies stand out.
So as I watched Rupert Wyatt's debut feature, "The Escapist," there came a point where I realized that it was going to be a film built around a twist or a secret or a big reveal, I started to get worried. It doesn't help that it's a prison film, a genre that doesn't seem terribly versatile, but "The Escapist" is more than the sum of its parts. Although I wouldn't want to overhype it, I would describe it as a solid picture with moments that deliver such a genuine charge that it bumps the film up a notch. The performances from the ensemble cast are all solid and engaging, and in particular, Brian Cox delivers as a lead, offering up a sympathetic, roundly-imagined characterization as Frank Perry, the man with the plan.
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The film jumps forward and backward in time as we watch a prison escape in progress and then also watch the days leading up to the escape, as the inmates involved all come together to plan the attempt. At the same time, new fish Lacey (Dominic Cooper) is struggling to survive his first few days in the joint, and slowly coming to the realization that if he doesn't join Frank and the others when they escape, he may be leaving in a box thanks to Rizza (Damien Lewis), the con who runs the prison.
Everyone's playing a familiar type here, but it's a good cast and they find ways to imbue these characters with just enough life and quirk to make them feel fresh. Joseph Fiennes is particularly good as the locksmith/boxer Lenny Drake, integral to the plan and sort of scary. And Steven Mackintosh, one of those guys that English viewers have seen in about 4000 movies and TV shows, plays Rizza's brother Tony, a shambling addict who uses his big brother as the impending threat that allows him to get away with whatever he wants. Lewis plays his menace with a smile, and it's subtle, never tipping into a stereotypical movie bad guy, as it so easily could.
What sets it all in motion is a letter from home for Frank. He learns that his daughter, who he hasn't seen for most of her teenage years, has become addicted to drugs, and he's determined to get out so he can help her. Cox really sells it, too, underplaying his father's fury admirably, but always keeping it close to the surface. His broken heart is the story's engine, and that's what keeps it from just being an escape movie.
And, yes... as I said... there's a twist. A secret. A surprise. And the reason it's not a spoiler to say that is because once the twist is revealed, it's not the point of the film. By keeping the focus on the humanity, Rupert Wyatt makes a strong debut as a writer/director here, and his film's got a great sense of low-budget style.
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