ESCAPE AT DANNEMORA (2018) – SHOWTIME TV REVIEW
Created by: Brett Johnson, Michael Tolkin
Directed by: Ben Stiller
Writers: Brett Johnson, Jerry Stahl, Michael Tolkin
Starring: Patrica Arquette, Benicio del Toro, Paul Dano, Bonnie Hunt, Eric Lange, David Morse etc.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
“Based on a true story” is a sentence we often find before many television dramas and feature films. It goes without saying that some are truer to their source events than others. The recent Oscar winner Green Book (2018), is a case in point, with the family of Dr Shirley quite rightly up in arms about the incorrect representations of family history on screen. Having said that, and despite the rather simplistic political rendition of race relations in said film, if I enjoy something I’m not bothered too much about historical accuracy. What one is after is a flavour and authenticity of truth. I accept that the truth should not get in the way of good drama and lets be honest Hollywood has never been frightened of downright fabrication to tell its tall tales. Obviously, one refutes ridiculous or incredible lies but ultimately, if you don’t like the bending of reality then stop watching films and television.
Based on the “true story” of a prison escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility, New York, during 2015, this superior genre serial is gritty and authentic and feels so real in the direction and performances it hurts. Whether it’s the truth is another story, yet what the writers and director Ben Stiller have delivered are eight episodes of cinematic television of the highest order. It begins and moves at a very slow pace establishing the aftermath of the main events, before flashing back and setting the scenes month-by-month of the personalities and their respective actions.
The first character we meet is Patricia Arquette’s brassy machine room supervisor, Tilly Mitchell. She’s bold and ballsy and dominates her relationship with husband, Lyle. Lyle himself, is portrayed effectively by Eric Lange as a tragic and loyal simpleton. Both of them are bad hair, big teeth and strangled accents, trapped by their class, work and lack of finance. While Lyle simply accepts his lot, Tilly is drawn to the prisoners she is meant to be supervising and ventures into illegal and inappropriate behaviour with the inmates. Arquette absolutely nails the humanity of a character who, in her fifties stuck in a dead-end job, desperately seeks attention and excitement. This makes her a hard target in such a masculine and testosteronic environment. However, she is more than happy to encourage and collude with said prisoners.
Prison dramas have always presented a fascinating way of analysing human nature and behaviour. The individuals are trapped in enclosed spaces and given many inmates’ proclivity to violence, they soon become a powder keg of fizzing egos and surging tension. Casting superb actors such as Benicio Del Toro and Paul Dano in the leads was a masterstroke. Both are expert at playing complex human beings and one of the challenges for a writer can be to get empathy for characters that are imprisoned for violent crimes. Yet, the actors, writers and director all manage to balance the tension between representing antagonistic characters in a sympathetic light. Indeed, even though we know Del Toro’s Richard Matt and Dano’s David Sweat are dangerous criminals, the story really drags us into their painstakingly patient escape work. Each episode builds obstacles they must overcome, almost until the suspense becomes unbearable. Lastly, while Dano’s tunnel-vision determination moves them toward the light, Del Toro’s manipulative hard man controls both Tilly and David Morse’s prison guard, Gene Palmer.
Overall, this is a superior prison genre serial; virtually cinematic in its casting, direction, locations, setting and performance. It takes a familiar narrative of a prison escape but transcends the genre with Arquette’s, Del Toro’s and Dano’s incredibly human and believable performances. These are not likable characters and they are not even anti-heroes to root for. Undoubtedly, though the Showtime production delivers as compelling a character drama as you’re likely to see all year. Director Ben Stiller deserves credit too for delivering a consistently balanced body of work here. Known more for his comedic film output there’s a maturity to Escape at Dannemara which offers authenticity in character and setting. If Stiller and his writers have bent the truth in any way then it does not offend my sensibilities; in fact I openly welcome it when the outcome is as absorbing as this.