We’re all living in our own personal prison, 3.5 readers.
BQB here with a review of Showtime’s “Escape at Dannemora.”
FYI – This TV show was based on real life events that were all over the news in the summer of 2015. To that end, it’s hard to say there are SPOILERS ahead but there are, because even if you watched the stories, there’s still a lot in the show you may never heard of.
At any rate, if you haven’t watched this show yet and want to, I’d recommend looking away and coming back after you’ve seen it. Otherwise, come on in.
Yes, 3.5 readers. We’re all stuck in our own personal prison. We all have our hopes, our dreams, our wants and our desires and yet, we also carry around with us our only personal set of bars comprised of our own circumstances and our own preconceived notions that keep us from attaining what we want.
That’s what I took away from this show and I must say, while I assumed it was going to be a piece of slapped together “ripped from the headlines” trash going into it, it really is a great work of storytelling and I hope it gets many awards.
The hard part of writing a story is that to retain the audience’s attention, the main characters must be presented as likable or at the very least, sympathetic. Otherwise, it’s too easy for a viewer to say, “I hope that piece of shit rots” and change the channel.
How does one make these characters sympathetic? After all, you’ve got two heinous killers who deserve every second of their sentence and then some and their illicit lover/accomplice, i.e. someone who was trusted to work with prison inmates and teach them how to sew in a tailor shop only to betray that trust by having sex with them and smuggling in their escape tools. Throw the book at them and call it a day.
Ironically, Ben Stiller, long known for his wacky, zany comedies, breaks out of his own comedy prison to provide a serious crime drama and excels, perhaps letting us know that his “Simple Jack” days are behind him and he now has his eyes on Oscar gold.
In a masterful use of “show don’t tell,” Stiller manages to find a little kernel of in this gruesome trio and ultimately the show becomes a morality tale about how dangerous and destructive it is to hope for outcomes that are far beyond your abilities to achieve them.
The best example comes early in the series when prison seamstress Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell (Patricia Arquette), a 51-year old wife and mother, gets dragged by her dopey husband and co-worker, Lyle (Eric Lange) on the worst date ever, a small town history museum in upstate New York. As Tilly heads outside, she looks across to a bar, where a man with a flashy car is getting doted on by two hot, young babes. Stiller doesn’t spell anything out. The expression on Tilly’s face tells us everything. She smiles. She gets lost in her mind. She wishes she was one of those hot young babes getting squired around town by a man with a lot of money.
Alas, Tilly’s frown turns upside down. Darn it. She remembers. She’s not a hot young babe. She never will be. She’s a chubby 51-year old woman with a closet full of novelty sweatshirts and a small house and two dogs and a dumb husband and a set of bad teeth and bad hair and she has no money and well, the list goes on and on and on.
Ironic, isn’t it? We constantly hear in the news about the struggles of men who believe that they are women or vice versa. What about people who, on the inside, believe they are awesome despite an exterior that looks anything but? Where’s the civil rights march for dumpy old ladies who truly believe they are worthy of being treated as a rich man’s latest conquest?
It’s a great scene and anyone interested in TV writing should study it. Arquette’s facial expressions tell us more than any narrator could. By the way, speaking of breaking out of our personal prisons, this is a role that is totally unlike anything I’ve ever seen Patricia Arquette in.
I’ve always thought Arquette was a decent enough actress but I’ve never been a huge fan because she tends to be one of those celebrities that gets extra political and also she tends to play school marmish characters. To her credit, she’s long been a strong woman who plays strong women, but she breaks the mold here by playing a woman who is the very definition of weak, if not stupid and naïve.
Arquette gets uglied up and then some for the camera. Make-up artists worked their magic to crap up her hair, skin and teeth but Arquette brings it home. As Tilly, she has a look on her face of constant confusion, torn every which way. You’ve heard of the man child that never grows up? Tilly is the woman child, unable to accept her limits, her circumstances, her inability to realize that being arm candy for a rich stud is not in the cards for her and that perhaps she should try to make the best of it with her husband who may be a complete doofus but at least he’s a loyal and loving doofus.
How did Arquette master Tilly’s face and mannerisms? Beats me. She has this look like she just smelled a fart while sucking on a lemon. She can go from utterly befuddled loser to cunning duplicitous backstabber and back again. Occasionally throughout the series, she is confronted by her co-workers and husband who see reasons to be suspicious and she reacts in the classic mode of a child throwing a temper tantrum after being caught with her hand in the cookie jar. It’s not my fault that I did something bad. It’s your fault for catching me doing something bad.
Honestly, I can’t praise Arquette enough here. She deserves an Emmy. In fact, all of her co-stars do because they all seem to be breaking out of their traditional roles.
Benicio del Toro has built a career on playing strong, swarthy, stoic Hispanic men of little words. At first, it seems like he’s cast to type as Richard Matt, the convicted killer who bosses and bullies her fellow prisoners around and turns them into his subordinate underlings with little more than an angry glare.
Like Tilly, Matt has a dream that is beyond his means. He wants to be free. He keeps closing his eyes and envisions himself riding on a horse on the countryside. He keeps hoping this despite the fact that he’s stuck in a cell that’s a glorified closet.
SPOILER ALERT: Does hope get these characters anywhere? Nope. Del Toro retains his stoic, ultra-macho façade for most of the series until the last episode, where the reality of being on the run from the law doesn’t match up with his dreams. He dreamed of being a cowboy on a horse. He got walking all day and night through the forest, sleeping in ditches, drinking germ infested stream water that makes him puke and it all culminates in him cracking under pressure, drinking himself into a stupor until he chases away his accomplice who was practically carrying him. The emotion and weakness is unusual for a del Toro character, but he does it well.
Even Paul Dano as convicted cop killer David Sweat goes against type. He’s usually plays youthful, baby faced dimwits but here he plays well, a youthful, baby faced young man who is getting run through the ringer of prison’s school of hard knocks. No doubt he deserves to be there, but each knock makes him tougher and harder, much more so than any previous Dano character.
Long story short, Matt is the con man that secures the illicit escape tools. Dano is the brawn that stays up into the wee hours sneaking into a catwalk and cutting and breaking through various barriers until an outside manhole in a suburban neighborhood is found. Meanwhile, Tilly is the dope who somehow believes that a life where she becomes the plaything of two dangerous criminals on the run in a lavish lifestyle on a Mexican beach is actually attainable and/or something that would work out and be fun to do.
Stiller plays with us throughout. There’s a scene where Tilly brings a twenty dollar bill to a hardware store purchase cutting tools for her boy toys. She looks at the receipt, sees the total is 21-something, looks at the impulse bag of chips that she’s already begun stuffing her face with, then shrugs her shoulders and uses a traceable credit car to buy the illegal contraband, showing us that a master criminal she is not.
He also pays attention to details in the setting. The area surrounding the prison is presented as a real life Hoth, any icy American Siberia where it is bone chillingly cold throughout the year and people have to bundle up well into the summer. Prisoners freeze their asses off. Residents are stuck in their houses because it is oppressively cold to go out and do anything else.
On top of that, the soundtrack is a playlist of 2015’s top songs. Tilly constantly listens to pop songs – Nicki Minaj, Meghan Trainor, Bruno Mars et. al, another sign she has a childish brain in an aging body.
Well, if I say much more I’ll give away the whole story but one more credit to Stiller. He focuses most of the show on the planning of the escape itself, giving us the details of all the evil doings that happened, followed by an episode that begins with a long shot where Dano does a trial run through the long path he has cleared through the bowels of the prison.
Then, just in case you had a little bit in you that said, “Wow! Amazing that they managed to escape!” Stiller gives us the second to last episode where he reviews in detail the heinous crimes these men did, the lives they destroyed and ultimately reminds us that as remarkable as it is that these men managed to escape, they still deserve to rot in jail for they are examples of true evil. I won’t get too far into it, but it is made clear that both men did despicable crimes that can’t be forgiven or explained away or written off as the byproduct of a bad upbringing or something.
STATUS: Shelf-worthy. Awards deserved for the cast and director all around.
Excellent review and insights. I loved the show. Finished it last night.