I don’t recall many of the details about murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat’s escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility in 2015, so the events of Ben Stiller’s stellar Showtime series, Escape at Dannemora, are as new to me as the events currently unfolding on Bravo’s true-to-life series Dirty John. I remember enough to know that Matt (Benicio del Toro) and Sweat (Paul Dano) escaped and that the manhunt was extensive, but Ben Stiller, working from a script from creators Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin, meticulously brings the details to life in a slow-moving but riveting drama.
The first few episodes, at least, dig into how the escape plan comes together, and the crucial role that Tilly Mitchell (Patricia Arquette) plays. Tilly runs the sewing lab in the prison, and she and Sweat develop a relationship built upon 45-second f*cks in the backroom of the unit. Tilly is a middle-aged woman whose sad-sack husband never looks at her and who takes an intense interest in Sweat, which invariably attracts the attention of not just the other prisoners but some of the prison staff.
Banging the prisoners, however, is not apparently a fireable offense. Eventually, however, it does lead to Sweat losing his job in the sewing lab, as well as his place in one of the more desirable cells. Richard Matt — the brains of the escape operation — steps right up into the vacancy, but he’s after more than sex with Tilly. Though he is the prisoner, he’s also got all the leverage, because Tilly is miserable and these backroom sessions are apparently all that she has to live for. It’s the opening that Richard Matt needs to secure the tools necessary for his eventual escape.
Meanwhile, Matt has also been working his charms on another guard, Gene (David Morse), exchanging his prison paintings for special privileges, which includes a heads up before the other guards search the bunks. It’s during one of those searches — while Gene has Matt hidden in a corridor behind the cell block — that Matt discovers a way out of the prison. He just needs to convince Sweat — with the help of Tilly — to go along with the escape plan.
Not a lot happens, narratively speaking, through the first two episodes of Escape at Dannemora — believe it or not, this prison-escape series is an engrossing character drama, and Del Toro, Dano, and Arquette are all equally up to the challenge. Dano’s got that disgruntled white dude thing down pat; here’s a guy in prison for murder who still acts like the world owes him something, and when he’s not sleeping with Tilly, or arguing with his fellow inmates for being too loud, he’s raging at his mother on the phone to help get him transferred to a prison in a better climate.
Del Toro works his low-key charms, believably manipulating both Gene, the guard, and Tilly into doing what he wants while leaving them with the impression that it’s what they want, too. He’s an artiste with a fondness for Hillary Clinton (or “that bitch” according to his cellmate), but he also quietly controls his cell block by acting as the commissary gatekeeper.
Arquette, however, may be the stand-out: It’s a transformative performance. Arquette is barely recognizable as a white trash woman so beaten down by life that a three-grunt f**k with a convicted murderer is the highlight of her day, capable of lifting her spirits but then dashing them when it’s taken away. It’s the tiny flicker of life amidst days and days of despair in frigid, rural upstate New York.
Her husband also happens to work in the prison, and their relationship — according to him, anyway — is “complicated,” and by that he means, apparently, that she can get away with having sex with prisoners but if he so much as looks at another woman the wrong way, his wife will berate him. Tilly is not quite sympathetic, but she’s not loathsome, either. The same can also be said of Sweat and Matt, though their motivations are less complicated. They want to get out of prison; Tilly’s life is her prison, and the few seconds she spends with her pants around her ankles with these inmates is her only escape from it. When Matt and Sweat eventually escape, they may also find that the prison is a better alternative to the unforgiving environs and the unyielding dreariness that surrounds them. Escape at Dannemora is a great drama, but it’s also a warning to stay the hell out of rural upstate New York.
Header Image Source: Showtime