Escape at Dannemora (2018)
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I'm hooked. I found myself being sucked into this simmering prison break drama right off the bat and am really looking forward to this 7-hour movie unfold every week.
Great camera work, well-thought out storyline and interesting characters. Benicio Del Toro has always been an acting tour de force and this might end up being his best work yet. Impressive performances from Patricia Arquette and Paul Dano who have transformed themselves superbly for their roles. The real surprise for me and many others would be the directing chops of Ben Stiller. Props for giving this an honest treatment, choosing great filmmaking locations (shots of Dannemora, the prison, Malone, Plattsburgh, even the manhole that the prisoners escaped to, are all the actual locations) and the use of music adds a really nice touch to this prison break drama.
Looking forward to the next episodes and of course a thrilling series finale! My favourite moment so far is Benicio Del Toro's ferocious guttural warning to Patricia Arquette's character in Ep 3 - DON'T TELL ANYBOOOOODDDYYYYYY. Rewind and Rewatch x 10000000.
Patricia Arquette is a genius. Her voice, mannerisms, etc. make her unrecognizable in this role. Her transformation into Joyce Mitchell rivals Charlize Theron's portrayal of Aileen Wuornos in "Monster." Same with Eric Lange. I was like "oh wait! It's THAT guy?" You totally forget you're watching actors you've seen in other work. Benicio Del Toro is super creepy and Paul Dano is all grown up. The entire cast is brilliant.
I've checked reports about the true story, and so far (I'm 6 episodes in) it seems to be extremely accurate. I didn't expect this kind of drama and intrigue out of Ben Stiller, the director. He killed it. Just give the cast and crew all the awards right now. And yes, I mean all of them.
So yeah, I get the media frenzy now. I'm just a few years late to the party.
The lead ensemble is excellent. Paul Dano as David Sweat is conflicted. He almost seems like he's really trying to be a "good" person, but what kind of guidance and support can he expect from his peers in the prison system? Richard Matt is calculating, you can tell he could go off the handle at any second. Patricia Arquette as Joyce "Tilly" Mitchell is absolutely perfect in her role as a middle aged woman unhappy with her marriage and becoming smitten with the idea of escaping to someone that she thinks will bring her more happiness. I wanted to say that she stole the show, but Paul Dano and Benicio Del Toro are just as great - there really are no weaknesses at all. I should also comment that the last two things that I saw Benicio Del Toro in were Avengers: Infinity War, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Both of those films saw Del Toro playing characters that were strange, very quirky. After those two (also enjoyable) films, it was fantastic to see him take this role and make a convicted murderer relatable on a human level, it was a joy to watch on screen. Paul Dano's David Sweat is a character that interests me because even though I live in Plattsburgh, David Sweat is the person that I heard least about in all of the press coverage when these events were actually happening. We all knew about Joyce Mitchell, and of course how things end with Matt, but I don't think David Sweat was personified nearly as much in the media, so I'm extremely excited to see how his story arc plays out. It's even more intriguing because director Ben Stiller was able to contact the real David Sweat in prison, giving this production a very real air of authenticity.
Continuing on with authenticity, it is extremely important to note that extreme efforts were made to replicate what really happened. This show was shot on location. The shots of Dannemora, the prison, Malone, Plattsburgh, even the manhole that the prisoners escaped to, are all the actual locations. Yes, the prison walls really do tower above the rest of the town, as shown in one of the opening establishing drone shots. Governor Cuomo was involved in shooting, as well as many locals who experienced these events first-hand. There were open casting calls in Plattsburgh for extras - hundreds of people showed up, and every single person got an audition. Not everyone was cast, but no one was turned away from an audition. Many of the people in this show really do live here. One excellent scene showed Tilly Mitchell and her husband discussing their weekend plans in the car. Her husband suggests taking her to Plattsburgh for the weekend, to which she responds, "Fancy". It's such a small moment, but the joke was purely for the North Country residents, (as none of us in Plattsburgh refer to Plattsburgh as 'fancy') and the entire theater laughed out loud. I believe this show doesn't single any of the residents out to look 'bad', it merely intends to capture the spirit of the people living in the North Country, and it does an excellent job.
Overall, this story is quite serious - the subject matter is gritty no matter how you slice it. However there are moments of levity that are unexpected in a prison show, but are very much appreciated. One way that this is accomplished is with the fantastic musical score. One of my favorite moments was a montage of prisoners working at sewing machines, while LunchMoney Lewis' 'Bills' played over the scene, a great nod to the fact that the prisoners are essentially slave labor. This is a serious show that is likely going to get pretty dark once the prisoners escape, but there are also (at least, in the first episode) moments of subtle humor that will pleasantly surprise you, without detracting from the experience at all. This is a show that you'll definitely enjoy watching, and then keep talking about it after it airs. Finally seeing this show after living through both the real-life events, and all of the buzz surrounding the filming is very satisfying. Ben Stiller has done an excellent job with Escape at Dannemora, and I'm very excited to see what he has for us next.
And so we have the otherwise excellent Escape at Dannemora, a four or five-hour story elongated to eight hours. Ostensibly a prison break genre piece, the series is more interested in the psychology of the people involved than in either of the two usual routes for such stories; triumphant escape or social commentary. Excellently directed and beautifully shot, with a quartet of astounding performances at its centre, the show tells a fascinating story, but it moves at a glacial pace that requires serious patience, and which doesn't offer much in the way of rewards (although the last two episodes are undeniably exceptional).
Written by Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin, and directed by Ben Stiller, the series tells the story of the 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility escape, when Richard Matt (Benicio Del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano) escaped the maximum security prison with the aid of civilian prison employee Joyce "Tilly" Mitchell (Patricia Arquette). The series begins the day after the escape, with Tilly already in custody, before jumping back several months to show how the escape came to be. A respected kingpin on the block, Matt is a man who can get anything you need, for a price. A talented artist, he is especially friendly with C.O. Gene Palmer (David Morse), who turns a blind eye to some of his shadier dealings. In the tailor shop where Matt works, Tilly, the shop supervisor, is engaged in a sexual relationship with Sweat, and is utterly contemptuous of her husband Lyle (Eric Lange), who works maintenance at the prison. When Sweat is moved to another wing, a lovelorn Tilly begins an affair with Matt, and when an oversight on Palmer's part leads to Matt learning an unused catwalk runs behind their cells, he forms an escape plan with Sweat. After busting through numerous walls, all they need to escape are tools to cut into a pipe. And so, promising Tilly that the three will escape to Mexico and live together, Matt persuades her to begin smuggling in what they need.
Aesthetically, Dannemora is exceptional, with director of photography Jessica Lee Gagné's work extremely impressive in matching form and content. In Part 2 (2018), for example, Gagné regularly shoots through bars and grids, up to the point where Matt begins to think of escape, then the shot composition becomes more open. Another good example is the opening shot of the superb Part 5 (2018); a nine-minute single shot following Sweat from his cell to the manhole which they will use to escape. The unedited format really sells the distance they have to travel, the size of the prison, and the extraordinary effort it took to get out. Also worth noting is that, very unusually, the series is shot in CinemaScope (2.40:1). This wide and narrow format is almost never used on TV, where everything tends to be shot 1.78:1 (Master of None (2015) is a notable exception). When filmmakers use 2.40:1 incorrectly (as they often do), it can come across as an affectation, an unjustified stylistic choice not derived from the content. Here, however, Stiller and Gagné use it magnificently, with the narrow frame serving to confine the characters. Combined with shooting through windows and having the characters stand in doorways, the precise compositions visually signify that these people (Tilly, Lyle, and Palmer included) are trapped no matter what they do; their lives are their prison.
From an acting perspective, Arquette's Tilly is extraordinary. Yes, the physical transformation is laudable, as are the accent and inflections, but this is far more than an impersonation - Arquette utterly inhabits the character in a similar manner to Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003). She plays Tilly as someone in a perpetual state of rage, resentment, and frustration, a woman who feels that she's entitled to more than she has, and is consumed by her own unhappiness. When we first meet her, her frustration levels with Lyle are at breaking point, with everything he says getting under her skin. In Part 6 (2018), however, which flashes back to formative moments from the characters' pasts, we learn that Lyle himself was once the same kind of escape hatch for Tilly that Matt and Sweat are in 2015. This episode also demonstrates her cruelty; something which has been on the fringes of the character thus far. Here we see how deeply ingrained her malice is, using her young son Jerome as a pawn in a campaign of hatred against her first husband, Kenny Barrile (Charlie Hofheimer). Arquette emphasises Tilly's naïveté in her dealings with Matt and Sweat, leaning into the almost childlike quality she possesses; seen in the tendency for her voice to become shrill and nasally, and to start crying whenever challenged about anything, effectively throwing a tantrum. However, she never lets us forget that Tilly is hateful, disillusioned, and dangerous.
Del Toro plays Matt as a classic sociopath; externally calm, but inherently volatile, and in the flashback episode, we see the extent of his sociopathy. Bizarrely, he's also a big believer in the power of positive thinking, telling Sweat that if they want to escape badly enough, then it will happen. In terms of Sweat, Dano focuses on his brilliant mind, playing him as calm and thoughtful, slow and methodical in his movements, but prone to violent anger when things don't go his way.
Most reviews of the show have focused on this central trio, but Lange's portrayal of Lyle is just as strong. Playing him as a man blinded by ignorance and unwavering loyalty, he believes he's doing the right thing, that Tilly still loves him, and that he can weather the current storm. Lange leans into Lyle's inability (or refusal) to see just how much he's being manipulated, abused, and ridiculed, with his adoration for Tilly never wavering, no matter what she subjects him to. The show unquestionably depicts him as a simpleton, but Lange finds more layers in the part.
The relationship between Matt and Sweat is especially fascinating. Inside, Matt is very much the dominant figure. As soon as they get outside, however, and especially when they head into the Adirondack Mountains, Matt is completely out of his depth, with Sweat very much becoming the leader. The depiction of Dannemora itself is also thematically well-handled - the town is in decay, paint flaking off walls, streets deserted, shops empty. Both physically and figuratively dominated by Clinton, the prison employs the vast majority of the population, but although they get to go home at night, for many, they are almost as trapped as the inmates, certainly in an ideological sense. Economically, culturally, socio-politically, this is a dying town, and although Clinton is keeping it alive for now, Clinton is also responsible for its decay.
The problem with all of this, however, is the show's runtime, which is at least two, maybe three hours too long. Yes, the deep dive into the characters' psychologies and backstory is fascinating, and the flashback episode is superbly made and very interesting, but we didn't need five hours of context preceding it, and at times, the plot seems to lose all sense of forward momentum. It's never what you would call boring, it's just that so much of it lacks anything in the way of urgency or tension.
Ultimately, Escape at Dannemora is a brilliant piece of direction, with awe-inspiring performances. Although it gives us a lot of detail about the mechanics of the escape, it's far more interested in the mechanics of people. And in that sense, it's always interesting. It's also the latest piece of evidence that just because you can use eight or more hours to tell a story, doesn't necessarily mean that you should. As a five hour piece, this could have been sensational. As an eight hour piece, it's above average, saved by its cast and Stiller's fine direction, but it remains always a slog.
This is the story of the 2015 jailbreak from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora New York by two murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat. This is a limited series that spans about 7-1/2 hours, 5 of them are focused on what it actually took to escape from a high security prison. Anyone who thinks that is too much time doesn't understand the lengths these two men went and how many hours and how much work they actually did put in to escape. The story is also about Joyce "Tilly" Mitchell a prison employee who became their accomplis.
This is an incredibly well acted and well told story that is bound to get Patricia Arquette who plays Tilly award nods. She was spectacular in it. If you like true to live retelling I would definitely recommend this
Ben Stiller does many nice thing sin his direction. He approaches the story in an interesting way, and manages to direct his performers to incredible work (which is always a sign of skill, even when working with such talent).
However, my only complaint was almost enough to make me jump ship. The piece is entirely too long. Lasting over seven episodes of varying lengths, the pacing is so slow that it becomes almost unwatchable at times. While paying in-depth attention to scenes can be wonderful, Stiller did that with every scene and shot (from critical moments, to establishing shots). So, the story drags. What took almost eight hours, could have (and I believe should have) been told in four. I feel that he could have still told the story beautifully, and the viewing experience would have been enhanced, by a telling that featured an overall faster pace, that slowed down when critical to the tale.
There were a couple of details that seemed so obvious and yet can't figure out how they were missed in the last episode, though:
1) would escaped convicted murderers really be clean-shaven after over three weeks on the lam?
2) shortly after they broke out, "Sweat" says to Matt that Canada is "25 miles that way". Regardless of the precautions they would have had to take in order to escape detection, they should have been able to cover that amount of ground in a day or two.