In Escape At Dannemora, the new limited series from Showtime arriving November 18th, there is a search for something better. A strong sense of trying to gain power back over the characters’s lives is felt in their every action. No one is where they want to be, trying to make the best of their situation. It can be felt in Tilly’s rendezvous with David in the backroom, in Richard’s transaction-based existence, in Lyle’s attempts to fix the marriage, and Gene’s holding the peace. Everyone wants better, but their circumstances hold them back.
This is what drives these seven episodes and what makes them exceptional. It’s the true crime story of the prison escape in 2015 from Clinton Correctional Facility, where Richard Matt (Benicio Del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano) use and manipulate Tilly (Patricia Arquette), a prison worker, to aid them in their attempt. Created by Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin and directed by Ben Stiller, the series is a look at the prison system and how two men can be capable of turning a woman wanting to be wanted into their get out of jail card.
It’s the little things where Escape At Dannemora comes alive. The prison is absolutely teeming with life and atmosphere, shot so stark and monotone in its color balance. It’s in contrast with its bowels down below, bathed in shadows and wet, dark and dank. Tilly settles on pop in the workroom to play over the prisoners’ work, and so does the show, prominently playing some catchy pop songs during its montages and more celebratory moments of its leads. The dialogue, almost Fargo-esque in the local dialect and odd sayings likely dominating the area, is so much fun to listen to. Eric Lange as Lyle, Tilly’s husband, is especially full of great lines.
Stiller’s direction of these seven hours is effective and always moving, at times giving magnetic montages and at others providing a view of monotony at play, letting his actors breathe in their scenes and never getting in the way of their performances. These two separate styles are settled between documentarian, following the action and poised to capture something by accident, and a more classical style where the drama is more settled and calm. The direction and editing is at its most effective in the executing of the plan, giving an immense sense of claustrophobia, excitement, and intensity, a strange feeling when you should be rooting for this to fail. Episode five, in particular, opens with a grand use of long takes and gorgeous lighting and atmosphere.
But it’s in the actors the series truly shines. Arquette is nigh impossible to see in her transformation into Tilly, becoming this character so flawlessly and making her so authentic. Her annoyance at the simplest of things, her outrage over the one good thing being taken away from her, her need for more, all add up to someone lost in her own life, where the hint of more is robbed by simple complacency. Shots holding on Arquette’s face, in two instances especially, hold so much information and emotion, where all she wants is a little excitement in her life, until the excitement becomes too real. It’s one of her best roles and deserves a lot of attention.
Del Toro as Richard “Hacksaw” Matt is like a shark, gliding in and taking control of anywhere he finds himself. Del Toro plays it with a smooth slyness, as though he knows everything and you don’t. His gaze says so much about his character: his slow, lumbering body language and way he views everyone as a means to an end a gripping trove for Del Toro to use to his advantage. Dano is captivating as David Sweat, in one moment a sad sack and in another a reliable workhorse tooling away in the dark. Dano plays Sweat with such conviction, oddly having morals when it comes to Tilly for a man inside lock-up, his kind eyes and softer demeanor strangely enthralling. A supporting turn by Lange, who is just as unrecognizable and locked into his role as Arquette, is such a specific performance where Lange simply does not look like himself anymore, and is Lyle Mitchell. David Morse plays Gene Palmer, one of the prison guards, whose close relationship with Richard is intriguing, Morse playing it with an air of cautious friendliness, as though he wants to be keep his distance but is drawn to him. It’s not until later Michael Imperioli appears, playing a great Governor Cuomo; and Bonnie Hunt as Catherine Hunt, State Inspector General, is a fun role she plays incredibly well.
Escape At Dannemora is a complete success in telling and showing a slice of American life not quite seen in drama as much lately. It’s an encapsulation of small towns, undeniably flawed prison systems, and the darker side of people’s hearts. Johnson, Tolkin, and Stiller have created and delivered an impeccable crime drama where at its core, something better is striven for. Here, some don’t deserve it, and others definitely don’t deserve it. But it’s thrilling watching them lie, cheat, manipulate, burn, and cut their way through to reach that something better. It’s a limited series with a lot to say, and it says it all with near-perfect rhythm.
Escape At Dannemora airs Sundays starting on November 18th at 10pmET on Showtime. All episodes were provided for review.