Television

Ben Stiller’s small-screen directorial debut, Escape at Dannemora, a dramatisation of a real-life prison break, invites viewers’ sympathy for two violent criminals and then churns it into a grim vision of Trump’s America.

By Geordie Williamson.

Escape at Dannemora

Benicio del Toro (left) and Paul Dano in Ben Stiller’s ‘Escape at Dannemora’.
Credit: Courtesy Stan

It was blink-and-miss-it news, a couple of pars in the lower reaches of your world newsfeed. In 2015, two inmates of a maximum-security prison in upstate New York – Richard Matt and David Sweat – had escaped. They trudged together for several weeks through dense forest towards the Canadian border before separating. Matt was eventually shot and killed by authorities; Sweat was also shot, but he survived.

What made their story of more than momentary fascination was that a third figure, the female supervisor of the men’s prison sewing workshop where both worked, had helped them get away. She had been seduced by the pair, slept with one or both of them, smuggled equipment in and agreed – until the last moment, when she welshed – to drive the pair to Mexico once they had got out and dealt with her “glitch” of a husband, a fellow prison employee.

Ben Stiller’s Showtime dramatisation of the events leading up to Matt and Sweat’s escape and eventual capture or death is not so interested in the salacious aspects of the story; they’re just a come-hither. Rather, Stiller seeks to add more calibrated counterweights to the scales of a tabloid tale of good and evil.

What becomes clear is that he wants the miniseries to speak of America in the shadow of the age of Trump. And he exploits our presumed knowledge of events to free him from the need to overly explicate, allowing a concentration on texture and tone of this world – a manifesting of those forces that shaped his cast.

The result is a gripping slow-burner that operates somewhere between the docudrama sociology of David Simon’s The Wire and the droll bleakness of Fargo’s television reboot. Unlike Simon’s TV work, Escape at Dannemora insists on the otherness of its characters, situating them as rednecks and misfits caught in a sluggish eddy of the river of American prosperity. Rarely has a show lingered so lovingly on bad skin and dental defects, strip mall Chinese restaurants and doughnuts for breakfast.

That said, unlike the tight formalist frame that surrounds even the most vivid characters in the various seasons of Fargo, Stiller’s first foray into directing TV drama also insists on the full human existence of its cast. They are not high-concept luvvie puppets but lives that bleed off the screen and back into the world from which they came.

A balancing act such as this one demands a cast with perfect poise, and Escape at Dannemora has one. The last time most of us saw Benicio del Toro he was skipping off an Imperial starship in The Last Jedi. The man comes trailing star status bright as a passing comet. Here, playing Richard Matt, pouch-eyed and boozy, he is shorn of everything but a certain seedy charm and low animal cunning.

Paul Dano as David Sweat has the unenviable task of playing fallen angel to del Toro’s demon-haunted senior. He affects a soft, little-boy voice and hugs his past propensity to violence close. His boyish looks and competence with the prison sewing machines bring him to the attention of Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell, setting the mechanics of the story in motion.

Patricia Arquette is astonishing in the role. Tilly first strikes as a paragon of self-deception, imagining her own outsized desires to be reciprocated, first by Sweat and then by Matt, after Sweat has been removed from the job because of prison authorities’ concerns about a potential relationship with Tilly. Blowsy and ravaged, she nonetheless exudes a thwarted sensuality. Why should her lowly status restrict her freedoms, she fairly asks. Why should she not partake of the full life of the world?

Cooing to her lovers but peevish and cruel at home, Tilly runs roughshod over her husband, Lyle, a kind, simple and bemused soul played by a pot-bellied Eric Lange, a man whose voice struggles to escape a warren of mismatched teeth. For all his flaws, Lyle’s resolute decency comes to represent the gold standard of conduct throughout.

Superb as these actors are in subordinating their glamour to the plain facts of a true-crime story, Stiller has not given up on manipulating raw material for dramatic ends. He spends the first four episodes establishing the grounds of their love triangle and opening up the possibility of escape. Our vision of the prison is, like theirs, ground level and extensive. We feel alongside the inmates the curious combination of boredom and unease that the constricted masculine world of the prison generates.

Naturally, our sympathy for Sweat and Matt grows. No one is evil enough to deserve the unremitting hell that is incarceration. These early episodes unfold like those prisoner-of-war movies that were once a staple of weekend TV: the righteous pleasure of watching the Allies burrow determinedly with a spoon; the intellectual thrill and logistical rigour of the acts undertaken to disguise their efforts.

Yet between the fourth and fifth episodes a curtain comes down. It rises again with the most harrowing 10 minutes of all – scenes that will have you pausing the remote and circling the sofa. These are moments in which nothing happens – nothing happens several times, actually – until it does. It is not an event that arrives with shocking suddenness, though things happen fast. Rather it unfolds at the speed of ordinary life, as if the narrative had finally defrosted on the kitchen bench after being kept in the freezer overnight.

These are the last hours in the life of Deputy Sheriff Kevin Tarsia, who was patrolling the streets of Kirkwood, New York, a sleepy village in upstate Broome County, on the eve of July 4, 2002. We watch him buy ketchup and mustard at an all-night petrol station. We see him pull over an erratic driver, a girl on her learner’s. At one point he stops his vehicle, lights flares and removes refuse from a road. Then we see him stop off at home just long enough to embrace his half-asleep wife.

Moments later, back out on the streets, he confronts three men suspected of robbing a fireworks store nearby. One of them, David Sweat, responds by shooting the police officer 15 times. The camera – and so all of us – stay with the deputy to the end.

It’s not just that the act of violence really took place. It is that its coming so late in the course of the story forces viewers to renegotiate their sympathies. And it isn’t just Sweat, he of the piping voice and peach-fuzz beard. Richard Matt and Tilly Mitchell are also shown to be capable of worse than we might have imagined. Certain tics of Matt’s, in particular, that seemed merely eccentric at first, are revealed as sulphurous wafts from deep in his psyche.

That we know how the story ends also changes the way viewers appreciate the escapees’ endgame. The camera retreats from the pair often and lingers instead on the vast pile of the prison complex, plonked down among crumbling cottages belonging to the descendants of Yankee pioneers. It tracks the convicts through swaths of forest verdancy to streams of poisoned water.

In the political fallout from the escape the prison becomes the centre of a PR exercise by the governor and his underlings: a stage set for elite posturing. Meanwhile, the media coverage of the escape has a frightened populace, exhorted to show community spirit, rushing to buy guns.

And when the exhausted pair happen across an empty hunters’ shack with a TV, it is hard to dismiss the leak of news through a bathroom wall, when presidential candidate Donald Trump can be heard explaining that the American dream is dead and suggesting he alone can make the nation great again.

That makes the series sound more didactic than it is. It’s a tiny editorial inserted into a subtle and expansive narrative. A more telling moment occurs towards the end of Matt and Sweat’s journey when the pair almost make it across the Canadian border to freedom. Matt draws Sweat’s attention to a wild strawberry bush before a nearby police vehicle splits the pair, all but ensuring their capture.

That glancing image recalls the final stanza of perhaps the best-known American poem of the 20th century, Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning”, a work that begins with Edenic promise and ends in something far less certain:

Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;

And, in the isolation of the sky,

At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make

Ambiguous undulations as they sink,

Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

Arts Diary

VISUAL ART ARTEXPRESS 2019

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until April 28

FESTIVAL Adelaide Fringe

Venues throughout Adelaide, February 15—March 17

ARCHITECTURE Micro Histories

Museum of Brisbane, until April 28

FESTIVAL Perth Festival

Venues throughout Perth, until March 3

VISUAL ART Confined 10

St Kilda Town Hall, Melbourne, until February 27

THEATRE Our Town

State Theatre Courtyard, Perth, until February 23

VISUAL ART Home: A Suburban Obsession

State Library of Queensland, Brisbane, until July 14

Last chance

MULTIMEDIA Jumaadi: Bring Me Back My Body and I Will Return Your Soul

Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Sydney, until February 10

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 9, 2019 as "All in the name of liberty". Subscribe here.

Geordie Williamson
is chief literary critic of The Australian and editor-at-large of Picador.