Dir: Rupert Wyatt. UK/Ireland. 2008. 105mins.
In his debut feature The Escapist director Rupert Wyatt animates the virtues of the B-movie thriller - direct expression, taut construction and a stripped down psychology-with a more conceptually unorthodox narrative design that collapses time and space.

In the script he wrote with Daniel Hardy, Wyatt initiates the prison break during the opening title sequence before snapping back to consider more traditional forms of character detail and dramatic conflict. The strategy suspends the forward momentum the genre depends on, though it also challenges the typical standards and expectations that help effectively transcend the pulp origins of the material.

It's not wholly successful, though a very good ensemble and mostly impressive direction help overcome the sometimes mechanical construction.

The Irish/UK co-production debuted in the Sundance premiere section. Vertigo Distribution opens the movie in April in the UK. In the US, the movie is perhaps too esoteric to appeal immediately to the mainstream action crowd. Even so, a cast of Brian Cox, Damian Lewis and Joseph Fiennes injects the work with a wider commercial viability. Additionally a strong secondary turn by Brazilian pop star Seu Jorge instantly puts the movie in play in South America. The movie should score in DVD markets in the UK and US, particularly fans of the cult HBO series Oz that the work often resembles.

The imposing production design of Jim Furlong and steely cinematography of Philipp Blaubach convey a palpably stark and forbidding location, a brown and yellow cathedral penitentiary. The back-and-forth narrative eschews character exposition and creates its own off-balance rhythm. Wyatt provides few details about his characters, their offences or the nature of their incarceration. The focus is naturally on survival, ritualistic details that distinguish the characters and detailing the various emotional, sexual and commercial transactions (mostly drugs) that often determine survival.

After Frank Perry (Cox) receives his first letter in 14 years revealing his daughter's life has spiraled out of control because of her drug addiction, he conceives of a breakout plan and he recruits a series of fellow inmates sympathetic to his cause: Drake (Fiennes), Brodie (Cunningham) and Baptista (Seu Jorge). His complicated plan is suddenly endangered by the presence of his new cell mate, Lacey (Cooper).

The younger man's inexperience and sexual vulnerability draws the attention of Tony (Macintosh). Tony is protected because his vicious brother Rizza (Lewis) is the prison's kingmaker. Tony unwittingly becomes aware of the plot and ostensibly blackmails Frank, setting in motion a conflict with the far more venal and bloodthirsty Rizza.

The storytelling is undeniably exciting and tense, though it also somewhat problematic. By intertwining the two different time periods, Wyatt automatically renders mute the traditional chase and pursuit angle of the story. The conflict is drawn out not between Frank, his associates and the institutional authorities of the prison though their fellow inmates. Freedom and by extension envy become the movie's ruling metaphors.

It is conveyed in the movie's recurrent image, a dazzling and poetic shot of white laundry towels being dropped from above as the chute that Frank handles catches each as he makes his appointed rounds.

If the present tense moments obviate the flashbacks, Wyatt continuously finds a way to underscore the tension and near unraveling of the plan. The movie has some off touches. A sequence of unbearable sadism in which an inmate mutilates himself is completely unnecessary to illustrate Rizza's depravity.

Some of the other flashbacks, like a pummeling boxing match involving Drake also feel counterintuitive to the texture and larger ideas. Fortunately Wyatt and his superb cast pull it together in the movie's boldly-imagined final act that justifies the movie's sometimes elusive form and turns it into something a cut above the rest.

Production companies/backers
UK Film Council
Bord Scannan Na Heireann/Irish Film Board
Parallel Films
Picture Farm

Executive producers
Brian Cox
Tristan Whalley

Adrian Sturges
Alan Moloney

Rupert Wyatt
Daniel Hardy

Director of photography
Philipp Blaubach

Production designer
Jim Furlong

Joe Walker

Benjamin Wallfisch

Main cast:
Brian Cox
Joseph Fiennes
Damian Lewis
Liam Cunningham
Seu Jorge
Dominic Cooper
Steven Mackintosh