Streaming now: ‘Escape at Dannemora’

Ben Stiller steps away from comedy to direct absorbing crime drama based on real events


It had to happen. Both movie theaters in Taos have closed for the time being in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. The Taos Center for the Arts has closed both its Stables Gallery and Taos Community Auditorium public venues, and the Mitchell Storyteller 7 Theatres have shut their doors until further notice. 

We applaud both for taking steps to protect the health of their patrons and staff and look forward to their reopening when the crisis is over.

For movie lovers, this change means online home viewing streaming sites like Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix, Vudu, and Disney are left to take up the slack. The choices for each are varied and range from the great to semi-great to eh, and omg-I-can’t-believe-I-wasted-time-watching-that.

We want to help. While some sites offer pay-per-view options to see first-run movies — and that’s cool, there’s nothing wrong with that — we’ll stick to reviews of what you can see without paying more than your basic subscription fee. Some sites, like Crackle, Tubi and Pluto even offer movies totally free as long as you have an internet connection. 

So, we cranked up our Roku streaming device and found a totally absorbing drama titled “Escape at Dannemora” on Amazon Prime. 

Expanded storyline

One of the more interesting ways that filmmaking has evolved over the past few years involves the way some well-known directors have used online streaming media to expand storylines outside the confines of the usual 120-minute feature film format. This is one.

Director-actor Ben Stiller, known mostly for his comedy work in movies such as “Tropic Thunder” (2008) and “Zoolander” (2001) veers from laughs to serious drama in this recounting of a real-life incident involving two convicts and a female prison employee in upstate New York. Although Stiller has taken producer credits on other multi-episode projects, he directs each of the seven episodes of this limited series. 

The show premiered in the Showtime network in 2018, but is now available on Amazon Prime. 

The story was developed from a headline-grabbing prison break in which two cons, Richard Matt (Benicio Del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano), manipulated a married prison worker named Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell (Patricia Arquette) into providing them with the tools and means to launch a daring escape in 2015 from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y. Both Matt and Sweat were convicted murderers. 

The plan, according to Stiller’s show, evolved over time. It stemmed first from a thoroughly down-low tryst between Sweat and Mitchell while working in the prison’s garment factory. As Matt, who was an acquaintance of Sweat’s, learns of the affair, he coerces his buddy to use her connection with the outside to help set up the escape. Matt also uses his friendship with a  friendly guard (David Morse) to also him, especially after the guard shows him an access space running behind their cells. Before long, he too takes up with Tilly in order to further the plan.

Performances deepen the tale

The show is well-acted and deliberate in its pacing, allowing the audience to get to know each character, what their motivations are, and how such a plan under oppressive prison conditions might actually be pulled off. 

Each of the actors provide standout performances, especially Arquette, who paints a vivid portrait of a complex yet tragically-flawed woman looking for love in absolutely the wrong places. Arquette won Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Critic’s Choice Television Awards for her outstanding work.

According to media reports, the real Joyce Mitchell, who is serving time for her role in the jailbreak, claimed she never has a sexual relationship with the convicts and called Stiller “a liar just like the rest of the world.”

As the convicts, Del Toro and Dano are brilliant. Stiller uses a lot of skillfully shot close-ups to capture every subtlety in their performance. Nothing is left to chance. This is important because the wordless interplay between inmates is one of the most vital ways they communicate.

Additional cast includes Bonnie Hunt, Eric Lange and Michael Beasley.

Stiller also won the award for outstanding directing of a miniseries or TV film. 

“Escape at Dannemora” is rated TV-MA for language, sexuality, drug use and some violence.

Tempo grade: A


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