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'Escape at Dannemora' review: Ben Stiller-directed prison drama is one of the year's best

Paul Dano as David Sweat in Showtime's "Escape

Paul Dano as David Sweat in Showtime's "Escape at Dannemora." Photo Credit: Showtime / Christopher Saunders

LIMITED SERIES "Escape at Dannemora"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime

WHAT IT'S ABOUT On June 6, 2015, two convicted murderers broke out of Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate Dannemora, becoming the only escapees in its 170-year history. They were helped by a female prison employee. Richard Matt (Benicio Del Toro) befriends David Sweat (Paul Dano), both in adjoining cells in the so-called "Honor Block." Each works in the prison tailor shop where they befriend, and seduce, Joyce "Tilly" Mitchell (Patricia Arquette), an inmate supervisor. Matt then hatches a complex escape plan, into which is drawn — unwittingly — correction officer Gene Palmer (David Morse). Ben Stiller directed this seven-hour series about the true-life escape of Matt and Sweat, and Sweat's subsequent capture (Matt was killed).

MY SAY For a small sense of what you're in for here, consider the title "Escape at Dannemora." "At" is the carefully chosen word as opposed to "from" because "from" would indicate all manner of things, none of them accurate. "At" means "at," and so prepare for a long stay within these walls, or at least over most of five episodes, which represent the bulk of the limited series.

Over these hours, the confines of Clinton Correctional become familiar, then intimate. As Matt memorably describes it, "out in nature there are no right angles, but in here it's all right angles. Bars up, bars down, bars across." Soon enough, those bars are replaced by a long transom, then a longer tunnel. Dark depths lead on to darker depths, those to impenetrable ones. Pin-beams of light slice through the black, while from the viewers' perspective, up from down becomes jumbled, then meaningless. At this point, you are within "Escape at Dannemora's" grasp, whether you care to be or not. This series is  that good, that effective.

 For "Escape" to work as well as it does, however, the three leads do need to come into sharp focus, and that they do. This is a strange tale of psychosexual seduction that plays out within the confines of steel and concrete. None of the protagonists are sympathetic and don't have to be, but they do need to be believable. They're especially that. As "Tilly," Arquette is almost completely unrecognizable. Her blond, teased hair is parted down the middle and falls haphazardly to her shoulders. She squints through a pair of wire-rim glasses. Her flat affect masks a ferocious libido — which she indulges — and her own feelings of entrapment, because, like Matt and Sweat, she, too, is a prisoner.

Dano's Sweat is twelve years into a life term without the possibility of parole. In the early episodes, the nature of his crime is not referred to (on July 4, 2002, Sweat and a cousin gunned down Broome County Sheriff's Deputy Kevin J. Tarsia), which allows Sweat to create his own self-portrait for viewers.

 He does: Self-pitying and self-delusional, he has deleted his own violent past and horrific crime from his own mind, making him just another good guy, wrongfully imprisoned.

 Like Tilly, that makes him an easy target for seduction as well. Which leaves, finally, Del Toro's Matt, the seducer. With hooded and opaque eyes, Matt studies everything and everyone. In one instant, he menaces, in the next instance, he charms. Del Toro's Matt also has vision — and vision, or seeing, is key to his character. He sees beyond the prison walls, to the High Peaks of the Adirondacks beyond, and dreams of Mexico far beyond those. 

 These three performances are spectacular, while Del Toro once again establishes why he's one of the great actors of his generation.

 Yes, "Dannemora" is hard and cold. The light is muted, the shadows deep, while seven hours of this could easily turn into prison time. But thanks to that cast and Stiller's masterful direction, they don't — not once, not remotely.

BOTTOM LINE One of the best series of the year.

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