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Boring stretches aside, Showtime's 'Escape at Dannemora' is triumph of acting

If director Ben Stiller’s goal in the Showtime series “Escape at Dannemora” was to illustrate how boring life is for the inmates and the workers there, he wildly succeeds.

However, the actor best known for his work in comic movies, didn’t need eight hours over seven episodes to make the case in a film inspired by the prison break at Clinton Correctional Facility that was covered extensively by Buffalo news outlets in June 2015.

Unfortunately, the length of the star-studded production – which has its first episode premiere at 10 p.m. Sunday -- means there are long stretches of boredom, too.

At times, this series seems intentionally designed to make viewers feel the fear, the discomfort and the boredom of prison life.

Viewers will get the point early that life inside and outside the prison walls in a small upstate town can be so tedious that everyone there wants to escape.

This is the second TV version of the story.

Lifetime carried an awful film, “New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell,” in 2017 that starred Penelope Ann Miller and was all of 97 minutes of air time.

[Related: Detailed look into Matt's history | Don't waste your time on prison break Lifetime movie]

The main reason to stay around for the eight-hour Showtime version – the final episode is almost two hours – is the acting. The cast is Emmy-worthy excellent.

Benicio del Toro plays Richard Matt, the manipulative murderer who has a surprising artistic side that includes portraits of Hillary Clinton and James Gandolfini and Mitchell's two dogs.

Paul Dano plays David Sweat, a cop killer who is aptly-named because he does all the meticulous, sweat work in the prison tunnel that allows Matt to fulfill his dream of escaping. Stiller emphasizes the sweat work, sometimes to an unnecessary degree.

An unrecognizable Patricia Arquette plays Joyce (“Tilly") Mitchell, the manipulative, bored wife who ran the tailor shop inside the prison and gave Matt and Sweat special favors in more ways than one and dreamed to go to Mexico with them. This is Showtime, so there are multiple sexual scenes. But they are relatively tame by the pay-cable network’s standards.

From the start, viewers learn Tilly has an inability to accept when she does something wrong.

Eric Lange plays Mitchell’s simple second husband, Lyle, who is heavily into denial despite the rumors surrounding his wife’s relationships with Matt and Sweat. Lyle is an upbeat man who even tries to make a trip to Plattsburgh sound exciting to his disinterested wife and seems immune to humiliation.

David Morse plays a prison guard who let the inmates break some rules and unwittingly helped Mitchell give them the tools to pull off an amazing escape.

The tree-lined, farmland area around the Clinton facility is another character in the film as Stiller frequently slowly pans the landscape to show the beautiful surroundings. Stiller is a big fan of slow pans of camera shots of scenery and the faces of characters.

He shows the scenery so often to establish the small-town community feel that you almost think he is trying to make the film a travel piece, set to a mood-setting musical score that may change from the preview made available to critics.

It is far from a travel piece.

The limited series, which was partially shot at and near a closed Pittsburgh prison, speaks to the loyalty some inmates have and how manipulative and desperate and brutal they can be.

The most jarring decision is how long it takes the series to show why Matt and Sweat are imprisoned.

The escape doesn’t arrive until episode five, by which time viewers may be dying for some action. Up to then, the episodes focus on the human sides of Matt and Sweat, which makes one wonder if the film is going to deal with the murders that brought them to Dannemora.

I suspect writers Brett Johnson, Michael Tolkin and Jerry Stahl or Stiller decided to wait that long to show the crimes Matt and Sweat  committed because they wanted and needed some viewers to root for the prisoners to escape.

The sixth episode, which especially illustrates Matt’s brutality, removes any chance anyone will root for him. It also may remove any sympathy toward Tilly, who illustrates a pattern of misbehavior.

The seventh and final episode – which is as long as the Lifetime movie – is a strong one. It documents the escape and the disagreements that Matt and Sweat had in the three weeks it took before Matt was killed and Sweat was captured when they went their separate ways.

At the time of the escape, Matt was serving 25 years to life for the 1997 torture murder of North Tonawanda businessman William Rickerson. While on the lam, he killed a man in a barroom brawl in Mexico. In the early 1990s, he was involved in a murder-for-hire plot and escaped from the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden.

The escapees evaded thousands of searchers for 20 days before Matt was shot and killed. Sweat was wounded two days later and captured near the Canadian border.

Sweat is a more complicated character than Matt. His involvement in the killing of a sheriff’s deputy makes him a heinous character. But he isn’t made to appear to be as violent as Matt, has sensitive and loyal sides and eventually is even frightened by Matt’s behavior once they escape and elude the authorities.

Mitchell comes across as a pathetic, manipulative figure who doesn’t deserve the loyal husband she continues to have after she is imprisoned, according to a post-script.

For all the positives of the actor’s performances, I suspect a viewer’s loyalty will be severely tested and the viewer may choose to escape after a few early slow episodes. I won't blame them, but will add the final three episodes are the strongest ones.

Some national critics may find the series more compelling than I did if they don’t know the story well.

But  Western New Yorkers know how the story ends and they don’t need to be reminded how beautiful parts of Upstate New York are.

Rating: 3 stars (out of four)

*Read more:
- Vicious killer or loving father? Richard Matt was both.
- Pergament's previous preview of Dannemora Showtime series
- NYT: How David Sweat foiled his own plot for another escape
- Richard Matt's escape is subject of daughter's book

Email: apergament@buffnews.com

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