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When You Lose All Hope, You Live For The Present

The Escapist, Dir: Rupert Wyatt, Now Playing

Hard-boiled is hard. One slip in tone, a moment of sentimentality, any break in story or character credibility and the tough, spare, merciless universe crumbles, usually into kitsch. Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955), Claude Sautet’s Classe tous risques (1960), John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), John McKenzie’s The Long Good Friday (1980), and Matthew Vaughn’s Layer Cake (2004) never waver. None could be described as understated, but each creates its own remarkably complete, compact, savage, morally rigorous, myopically goal-oriented world.

From left to right: Dominic Cooper, Joseph Fiennes, Brian Cox, Dominic Cooper, Seu Jorge. © IFC Films.
From left to right: Dominic Cooper, Joseph Fiennes, Brian Cox, Dominic Cooper, Seu Jorge. © IFC Films.

The doomed souls who strive to impose their will on that world or on themselves spend either way too much or not enough time in reflection. Whichever, they keep their reflections to themselves. Hard-boiled is not about sharing. Words change little; few are spoken. But an infinitude of words ricochet around inside their heads. And their words, their regrets, every mistake they’ve ever made is etched, blasted into their faces for all the honest world to feel. They wear their sins on their skin and in their posture. Unless, of course, they’re Lee Marvin. Marvin’s face reflects nothing but animal appetite and the will to maim. Regret never made a mark on Lee Marvin. Lee Marvin is regret Kryptonite. Marvin makes regret suffer by taking away its unlimited power, by being impervious. But only Lee Marvin could.

Any thoughtful hard-boiled prison break picture owes a great debt to Jacque Becker’s Le Trou (The Hole—1960), written by death row inmate Jose Giovanni. Le Trou shares with The Escapist from the first frame the certain knowledge that nothing will alter the fate or souls of its characters. Whether they escape from the hole, die in the attempt, or get caught to rot inside forever, their bodily circumstances will not grant them a greater or lesser degree of freedom. That freedom, or its absence, exists only in their heads.

In Le Trou, the leader of the break is a silent moral sage. He moves like a sensei and commands his fellow cons and the space around them by his silent gravitas. He’s a real 1950s hero: unneurotic, stoic, monosyllabic; existentialism’s Action Man. The Escapist’s star and leader, character actor Brian Cox (for many of us the only possible Hannibal Lecter, from Michael Mann’s Manhunter), doesn’t do monosyllables. His orotund tones emerge from his ever-more sagging chest and ever-expanding gut with the world-weary precision of a man who’s earned a punishing knowledge of the truth. His failures have brought him, if nothing else, the unvarnished view.

As in any prison, Cox lives among men still clinging to, even defined by, their delusions. By reflexive violence and simple psychopathy, their delusions become the hard-boiled reality of whoever engages their attention span, however briefly. Cox and his gang’s problem is to remain invisible while sneaking out right under their noses. If any of the human animals around him had a clue of what he had planned, they’d murder him just for the pleasure of spoiling someone else’s fun. In a classic hard-boiled prison movie trope—which rings as true as ever—the guards are utterly irrelevant. The cons make the rules and they run the joint.

Cox runs nothing. His many years inside have earned him only the right to be left alone. He’s powerless but for his circle of friends. There’s an Irish hard nut--with a heart of gold--played by Liam Cunningham, whose character seems based on Colm Meaney's Irish hard nut--with a heart of gold--from Layer Cake. Some unlikely diversity appears in the form of Brazilian singer/actor Seu Jorge, who sang David Bowie, all youthful and sweet-faced, in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Here, he's a convincing con, all suspicion, tactics, and self-preservation. And there’s Cox’s new roomie, a useless innocent recently shower-raped by an even-by-prison-standards psycho (the posh twit who ran the ganja farm in Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels), the younger brother of the bull goose loony of the joint, Damian Lewis. Lewis played that rock of modesty and accomplishment, Lt. Winters in Band of Brothers. It’s tough to accept him as evil after that role, with his choir-boy face and air of rectitude. Even though Lewis is English, in The Escapist, the voice emerging when he speaks is post-synched music hall Oirish. With his weirdly blank face and a voice recorded in some other room at some other time, Lewis seems a human marionette. That disconnect eviscerates several crucial scenes of menace between Lewis and Cox.

Another crucial disconnect derives from an inexplicable casting choice. A punch-drunk English yobbo, all shirtless under a sleeveless hoody, all tats and big arms, all shuffling and mumbled Cockney slang, turns out to be, under close inspection, Ralph Fiennes’ baby brother, Joseph. At which point anything hard-boiled falls away and one is forced to ask: Who the fuck do they think they’re kidding? Is there a more over-refined upper-class twit in English cinema than Joseph Fiennes? It’s hard enough to accept him even as a 19th Century figure (unless he’s in a play by Oscar Wilde), but a 21st Century prison enforcer? Either Fiennes is working overtime to expand the brand, or this part goes to some deep wanna-be yearning in his psyche. When he works the heavy bag, mumbling and flexing his triceps, unintentional hilarity shatters the mood. Any hard-boiled prison movie—think Steve Buscemi’s understated masterpiece Animal Factory (2000) and its terrifyingly real portrayal of a prison prostitute by Mickey Rourke—must avoid camp. The dissonance between Fiennes’ onscreen vibe and the character he attempts shoves camp into our faces from the moment we recognize him under all those mannerisms.

But these are minor annoyances. In reasonable time—not too much exposition, not too much explanation—the break commences. And it makes the film. There are three young, fit escapees, who know nothing. Leading them are two gasping, middle-age thinkers who can’t even trot for a hundred yards. Neither group can make it without the other. The harrowing underground sequence plays like a classic nightmare: every door thought to be open is not only double-barred, but when pried free, reveals an even worse nightmare. The men instantly lose any sense of themselves as a team, and fight their way through every barrier alone. As they lie around exhausted, trying to make the next move, they gaze about with blank curiosity: who else might still be alive?

As the likelihood of reaching freedom—at least physical freedom—increases, The Escapist takes on a Daphne DuMaurier quality, an O’Henry aspect, that will either seduce or infuriate. It’s an incongruous turn for a film so grounded in realism, or even hyper-realism, a film where even the nightmare sequences seem utterly plausible. As the climax nears, the shift into not-quite-reality suits the film’s visual grammar; it’s no cheat.

Throughout the picture, when horrible things happen, the visuals leave hard-boiledness far behind, becoming expressionistic, even hallucinatory. When the normal horror of prison reality returns, the visuals switch back to an almost documentary realism in framing, cutting and connection to physical environment. That is, day-to-day life is grounded in the hard stone walls and iron stairs. Murder, rape, beatdowns, organized prize-fights or violence of any kind is presented as transcendent, as events that make the stone walls fall away.

While that technique might reveal a telling psychological truth for the imprisoned, it enables a film of two moods. The ping-ponging between them sometimes heightens connection to the story, and sometimes displaces it. Accordingly, the climax of The Escapist, though harder than you might have thought possible, shifts into another realm entirely. And then it’s clear why Cox is so world-weary, so sick of it all, so barely interested in his own escape, and so hard-boiled.


David N. Meyer

David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2009

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