I’ve seen all eight episodes of Ben Stiller‘s Escape at Donnemara (Showtime, debuting tonight), and it certainly delivers in an unexpected way. By that I mean it does a very unusual and fairly ballsy thing in the home stretch — a move that I totally respected.
It’s an appropriately grim, throughly-delved-into saga of the Clinton Correctional prison break of 2015, and the schemings of convicted murderers Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano), and about the help they got from miserable prison worker Tilly Mitchell (Patricia Arquette), a married, middle-aged woman with whom both convicts had a sexual thing with.
Everyone’s read the news accounts and can probably recall some of the basic plot points. Stiller’s film digs into every nook, cranny and orifice, and mines the feelings of lethargy and resignation for all they’re worth.
Escape at Dannemora is composed in spare, straight fashion — utilitarian, not overly shaded and certainly not arthousey, unpretentious. And oh boy, did I feel gloomed out by those bright green walls everywhere. If only state-prison walls were dark olive drab.
Despite suggestions and metaphors contained in the word “escape”, Stiller’s film is mainly about the planning of the break. The first five episodes, to be exact, while simultaneously focusing on Matt, Sweat and Mitchell’s triangulated relationship. Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood‘s Escape From Alcatraz was also primarily about planning, but of course that whole film ran only 112 minutes.
I honestly felt that this portion went on too long — that Stiller was more into keeping me locked up than offering what I wanted from the beginning, which was to savor those little tingles of freedom, however brief and despite the wrong kind of company. We all want to tag along when the door swings open.
The sixth episode is about the escape itself, the seventh episode stops the narrative cold in order to explore Matt, Sweat and Mitchell’s back-stories (i.e., the gutsy strategy that I spoke of earlier) and the final episode is about Matt and Sweat trying to elude a $23 million dragnet as they struggle and scramble their way through the woods, and scrounge what they can in a couple of abandoned cabins.
What is Escape at Donnemara really about? Grim lives and grim fates and how trapped and depressed the lower-middle-class bumblefucks feel, especially by the likelihood that they’ll never climb out of it. It’s nonetheless about people desperate to break out, even if that only amounts to daydreams.
Escape at Dannemora is mainly Arquette’s film (she’ll be nominated for an Emmy) with Del Toro and Dano delivering like the natural-born pros they are every time at bat. The final episode will air on 1.6.19.