Writers Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin team up with director Ben Stiller to create a mini-series (streaming on Hotstar in India) that’s set to gentle simmer right from the beginning, and by the end of it, is a red-hot plate on hypnotic burn. Based on the real-life story of inmates Richard Matt (Benicio Del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano)—and their complex, manipulative, and addictive sexual relations with prison employee Joyce “Tilly” Mitchel (Patricia Arquette)—in the picturesquely set Clinton Correctional Facility in the Adirondacks Mountains, the show focuses as much on the internal machinations of each of its characters, and how and why they plot their moves that lead up to the shattering end.
Cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné plays with the lights, shadows, headlamps, tunnels, prison cell mirrors, and stunning landscapes, alladinizing your viewing experience into submerged immersion—she makes you feel claustrophobic one minute, pushes you inside the prison cells the next, takes your breath away with picturesque drone shots elsewhere, and makes you part of the escape plan throughout. And composer Edward Shearmur is the series’ Nostradamus: his background score bubbles up seconds before an event, just striking the right notes of ominous vagueness, not letting you in completely, but keeps you just on edge. Director Stiller has his steady masterful grip on the story-telling, opening in June 2015 as New York State Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott (a brief but quietly effective performance by Bonnie Hunt) kicks off the investigation on what happened at the correctional facility, questioning Tilly—Patricia Arquette is squirmingly brilliant here and all through the show, her expressions a mix of nervous-wreck-bravado and imploding self-pity, but never taking the share of her actions and their deleterious effects. But it is Stiller’s knock-out direction that stuns as he creates a cinematic osmosis in time as he connects this opening back to the present in the story in the finale, beautifully melding the dialogues of the flashback into the breathless present, playing with the visuals, the sound design, and magically dissolving visual edits.
There’s another curve ball Stiller throws you in the form of the penultimate episode—it’s as if he bungs in a guide to dysfunction as an afterthought, which of course it isn’t. This kaleidoscopic episode tears the façade off of its main characters, including Tilly’s husband Lyle Mitchell (Eric Lange in a heartbreakingly awkward turn, his eyes holding a remote candle for his wife, whose dispensations and bizarre behavior are opened up here too). David Morse as inmate escort guard Gene Palmer is solidly good, but this episode isn’t about him. It’s about the other two players in this messed up, self-destructive rectangle, of which three sides are looking to get out—inmates Sweat and Matt. Paul Dano is so sharply measured and haunting as Sweat, you almost begin rooting for him. But it is Benicio Del Toro, that masterclass actor, as Matt who’s horribly good. Toro’s eyes shoot menace, skullduggery, and ice-cold detachment. That icy wind in his black hole pools of eyes comes into play as he observes people around him, measures them up, and then swoops in for the kill with charm, empathy, and wit. It works for him, until he gets his hands on a booty of liquor. Even then he reminds you of a lion. Ever seen how the king of the jungle moves with swag and unpretentious pride, even when it knows it’s in the hunter’s cross-hair? That’s him.
Escape at Dannemora is rated A (Restricted to adults) for violence, sex nudity, and profanity.
Escape at Dannemora
Director Ben Stiller Time 51-98 min
Writers Brett Johnson, Michael Tolkin
Stars Particia Arquette, Benicio Del Toro, Paul Dano, Eric Lange
Genres Biography, Crime, Drama