Ambrose Bierce’s celebrated short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890) may have been set during the American Civil War, and may have been first published over a century ago, but it has been refashioned for all manner of modern cinematic genres. Brazil (1985) is a dystopian SF, Jacob’s Ladder (1990) is an angsty Vietnam drama, Donnie Darko (2001) is an apocalyptic teen movie, Stay (2005) is a nervy psychological mystery, but despite their generic differences, all of these films (as well as the last three features made by David Lynch) ultimately owe their unconventional chronologies, double-dealing plots and twist endings to the original incidents at Owl Creek Bridge and now Rupert Wyatt has transferred Bierce’s escapist themes to the genre to which they are arguably best suited: the prison-break movie.
Frank Perry (Brian Cox) is a man looking to escape. As an aging lifer, he has long accepted the criminality, corruption and constant danger of his prison surroundings as his permanent lot, and has kept his head down but now all that is about to change, as a letter reveals that his beloved daughter is critically ill from a drugs overdose. Realising that he needs to see her again before either he or she dies, Perry quickly assembles a team of cons who can help him get away.
Perry’s first recruits are Brodie (Liam Cunningham), who knows the tunnel system under the prison, and the thief Lenny Drake (Joseph Fiennes), who can get almost any tools together and they will eventually also be joined by Viv Baptista (Seu Jorge), whose drug-cooking skills are required to bribe the sadistic junkie Tony (Steven Macintosh) from revealing the plot to his wing-king brother Rizza (Damian Lewis), and by new prison arrival James Lacey (Dominic Cooper), whose youthful looks have immediately attracted trouble. A frenetic series of flash-forwards make it clear from the outset that these men will all break out but just how they will do it, how far they will get, or what exactly constitutes escape, will only come to light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
With its grim portrait of incarcerated life, its daring escape plot and its redemptive story arc, The Escapist aligns itself to any number of prison-break films. At the same time, however, the narrative’s constant flipping forward and back makes it more like a puzzle movie, as viewers are left struggling to fill in the gap between where events are now and where we know they are going. Some highly energised editing ensures that the film remains thrilling from start to finish, while the stillness of Cox’s extraordinary central performance lends the film the gravity that is so necessary for the dramatic impact of the final scenes.
Ultimately, The Escapist impresses as a recognisable genre film while also breaking free of its generic confines by suggesting that escape is, over and above having the right team and the right tools, a state of mind. Here, the visceral, the intellectual and the spiritual all come together, elevating The Escapist beyond merely escapist entertainment, and offering something that any viewer can dig.