Scotland’s Brian Cox consistently proves himself to be one of film's best working character actors, although he used to be most famous as a kind of footnote. He played Hannibal Lecter in Michael Mann’s Manhunter in 1986, before Anthony Hopkins took ownership of the part in perpetuity with The Silence of the Lambs. Thanks to such roles as a redeemed pedophile in L.I.E. and a traveling thespian on “Deadwood,” Cox has enjoyed a big-screen resurgence in the past decade.
He reliably steals scenes as bombastic authority figures, but the English prison drama The Escapist confirms that Cox makes an arresting screen subject even while simply thinking and reacting. He anchors The Escapist as desperate lifer Frank Perry, even though he hardly speaks for long stretches, so you don’t know what he’s thinking about or reacting to. His concerns have their own gravity.
Director/co-writer Rupert Wyatt gives the film a twisty structure that matches the labyrinthine underground escape route of its jailbird antiheroes. The Escapist begins with the early phases of a breakout from an English prison, then flashes back and forth to explain the meticulous planning and high-pressure motivations behind the escape attempt. The audience doesn’t quite know everything that’s going on in the first half hour, until Perry and his comrades (including Joseph Fiennes as a pumped-up lock pick) lay out their plan over a game of Dominoes.
Like many English institutions, The Escapist’s prison has an ancient quality that seems untouched by time, from the dungeon-like laundry room to the central cellblock's opera-house expanse. When the prisoners light torches and run through subterranean tunnels during their escape, they could be in a Roman aqueduct. No doubt the prison’s power dynamics follow the timeless rules of alpha males, as well. The soft-spoken, menacing mobster Rizza (Damian Lewis) rules the prison and gives free reign to his deranged, junkie brother (Steven Macintosh in a splendidly hateful performance).
At times The Escapist’s soundtrack and high-speed editing try too hard to jolt the audience, as if Wyatt’s afraid the Guy Ritchie fans will lose interest. The film also has a sentimental side, as Perry worries about his drug-addicted daughter and reluctantly shelters a vulnerable young cell mate (Mamma Mia’s Dominic Cooper). The Escapist primarily resembles mid-century French crime dramas such as Rififi by exploring character through process-oriented action.
Film fans worldwide can view The Escapist On-Demand via IFC In Theaters beginning April 1. The unconventional release plan suggests that the film itself emulates Cox’s character by trying to find a successful release through any means available.