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DVD Review: Escape at Dannemora

April 16, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Directed by Ben Stiller, the Showtime miniseries Escape at Dannemora dramatizes the real life escape of two prisoners from the Clinton Correctional Facility in the small town of Dannemora, New York near the Canadian border in 2015.

The series follows inmates Richard Matt (Benicio Del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano), who are both serving life sentences, as they hatch a plan to escape. They are aided in their prison break by Joyce “Tillie” Mitchell (Patricia Arquette), who works in the prison’s tailor shop and is also having affairs with both men, prompting her to help smuggle in supplies for them.

The show moves at a slow, meticulous pace, but it never once drags throughout the seven episodes, instead using the extra time allotted by the serialized storytelling format to develop its characters and build suspense as it recreates their entire escape in as much detail as possible.

Furthermore, the show boasts excellent production design, utilizing a cold grey and blue colour scheme to represent the drabness of the prison. This is heightened by Jessica Lee Gagné’s gritty and impressive cinematography, which keeps the focus on long takes to help build tension, including a jaw-dropping, nine minute long single take sequence that opens episode five, following Dano’s character on a dry run through the hidden corridors and ventilation pipes that the prisoners are using for their escape. It’s a stunning, technically masterful sequence that provides the centrepiece of the entire series.

One of the most interesting aspects of the show is that we are never told what crimes Matt and Sweat are guilty of until the sixth episode, which plays out entirely in flashbacks and shows us what they did to get their life sentences in graphic, painstaking detail. This is by far the most gruelling episode in the series, arriving just as we have started to sympathize with these men and even cheer for their escape, forcing us to no longer see them purely as victims of an unfair system. It’s a remarkable bait-and-switch, forcing us to reexamine our feelings towards the characters after witnessing the heinous things that they did.

Stiller shows a sure hand behind the camera, allowing the series to unfold with a dark and brooding tone that shows few hints of his more comedic work, capturing the monotony and rhythm of prison life and how it causes people to act out of desperation. The show is set to a killer soundtrack of both old and new songs that provide the backbone to several brilliantly edited montages, and it’s built around incredible performances from the entire cast.

Arquette, who earned both a Golden Globe and a SAG award for the show, is practically unrecognizable here, stunningly transforming into the role through makeup and prosthetic teeth. She offers a nuanced depiction of the needy and emotionally unstable Tillie, who became the point of tabloid fixation when the real story was unfolding, that manages to go deeper than the media’s more sensationalized portrayal of her. The actress paints her purely in shades of grey that ensure the audience’s feelings towards her remain conflicted between understanding and disgust.

Eric Lange is also excellent as Tillie’s more sympathetic and well-meaning husband Lyle, who also works at the prison and is easily taken advantage of, seeming genuinely oblivious to his wife’s actions. Del Toro is a natural fit for the role of the charismatic and manipulative Matt, who is used to getting his own way and is treated like a god by many of the guards and other prisoners, and Dano delivers one of the best performances of his career as the quieter and more sensitive Sweat.

The show does a very good job of keeping our emotions conflicted right through to the feature length final episode, which clocks in at 99 minutes and plays like its own movie, meticulously detailing the extensive, several week long manhunt to track down the two escapees. While Escape at Dannemora is a somewhat heavy show to get through due to the dire subject matter, the payoff is highly worth it. This is a confident, absorbing and exceptionally well made miniseries that does an excellent job of recounting this unlikely and fascinating true story.

The three-disc DVD set also includes commentary tracks by Stiller and other members of the cast and crew on each of the episodes, as well as two featurettes on the final disc. The first one, Primary Sources, focuses on how they strived for authenticity in adapting the true story, right down to casting some of the real prisoners, corrections officers and state troopers in minor roles. It’s followed by Making Sweat’s Run, a fascinating piece that reveals how they created that amazing long take by seamlessly stitching together seventeen separate pieces of footage shot in various locations.

Escape at Dannemora is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release. It’s approximately 7 hours, 23 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: April 16th, 2019

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