Media Review: ESCAPE AT DANNEMORA, The World as Prison

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I don’t watch prison movies anymore.

My experience has been that they either drift ever so deliberately toward nasty sadistic, racist, homophobic sex slave porn or they celebrate breaking-outta-here stories built on egregious Steve McQueen-like right wing machismo. Yes, you’re right, Bird Man of Alcatraz (1962) is in many ways an exception: no porn, no MAGA delusions about sticking it to “The Elites.” But it shares with any prison film I can think of that claustrophobic, airless sense of a bubble, an island-like enclosure detached from the supposedly free expanses beyond its parameters. It’s that hermetic, claustrophobic intensity of the typical prison movie that creates the obscenity that grows inevitably out of extreme repression; and also creates an idealized, if vague sense of the attraction of the freedom outside its borders. The airless bubble of the typical prison film is also the justification for the necessity of a superior uber mensch, a prison movie staple, who escapes, by means of a tunnel or by becoming a bird expert, through a ginormous will to power. (Nietzche smiles.) Generically repugnant. But because of my memory of the news accounts on which it is based, I watched Escape at Dannemora. I’m glad I did. The series redefines prison stories.

You wouldn’t go that far? OK. Well, what do you make of the title? Escape “At”? Not the expected preposition. So much so, that Amazon Prime Video mistakenly lists the series as “Escape From.” And indeed the title of Michael Benson’s book about the incident, is Escape From Dannemora (2017). The unexpected preposition in the television series title is deliberate and meaningful. “From” reflects a transition, a passage to somewhere. “At” has a more static meaning, a reference to where the escape merely began. So we can say that the title leaves tantalizingly open a sense that the escape went nowhere. But, if that sounds a little too “lit crit,” let’s not get too excited about the title. Best to look right at the series. How does it reflect on escape in its parts one to seven?

The series’ main characters are based on David Sweat and Richard Matt, real men who broke out of Clinton correctional, a real prison, and on Dannemora a real town where the jail is located. And how are things in Dannemora? Well, if Clinton correctional is a bleak, entrapping place, so is Dannemora, as depicted, a low income nowheresville where lower middle class scarcity of amenities is compounded by spiritual poverty. The affluent “summer people” who buy houses in the area to enjoy the considerable beauty of the natural environment alleviate nothing. As we see in a quietly mocking scene in a beauty salon, they bring with them a different kind of oppressiveness, the vapid social climbing of the big city. Jail is not a place of freedom, but neither is Dannemora. So may we say that the town is a place at which there are possible free moments, and from which there is no escape? I think so. After all, jail and town are not that different from each other, at least not in this story. Clinton Correctional is no sealed bubble separate from a larger world of freedom. Series creators Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin, and director Ben Stiller continually remind us that both prisoners and townspeople alike experience themselves as incarcerated and everyone dreams in vain of escape. And that, I would say, is the secret the series reveals when it dramatizes the destinies of Matt and Sweat and the actions of the prison personnel who abetted them.

The series plot faithfully rehashes the already known news accounts, what Sweat (Paul Dano) and Matt (Benicio Del Toro) did: that they planned a jailbreak, who helped them, knowingly and unknowingly, that they ran, that they were captured, that Matt was killed, and that when Sweat was returned to prison he was kept under much more draconian surveillance than before. What the series adds is an interesting insight into the mysterious dynamic of their escape, which hinges on the motivations of the two people at Clinton who made it possible, Joyce “everyone calls me Tilly” Mitchell (Patricia Arquette) and Gene Palmer (David Morse). Tilly and Palmer are two ordinary Dannemorans, working stiffs just trying to make ends meet who have secure, if not very lucrative, jobs. Tilly colluded with Matt and Sweat, believing she would escape with them. Palmer did not know about Matt and Sweat’s plans to escape, but he was deliberately lax about the rules of the facility out of a kind of friendship for Matt, which gave him enough wiggling room to carry out his plans. Eventually, Palmer had a feeling he had become part of something subversive, but he didn’t pull away. Why did Tilly and Palmer throw it all away for two “lifers” both convicted of sadistic murders? That was my burning question when I read the strange case of Matt and Sweat in 2015, and I watched Dannemora, hoping it would have something to say about that. Reader, it does. Subtly, expertly and with an impressive amount of complexity, the series suggests that Sweat and Matt constituted a sorely needed escape for both Tilly and Palmer.

Palmer’s job was to escort prisoners from one place to another. A big affable bear, with the bulk to threaten prisoners who get out of line, but also a warm and friendly soul, Palmer was, at the same time, an unsatisfied man. David Morse, as Palmer, tells us with every move he makes, every breath he takes that he wants much more out of life than the town of Dannemora and his job can ever give him. A guy in his fifties working in a government job at a jail, he nevertheless poses in some ways as a movieland rebel. He rides a big noisy, bully boy motorcycle to work, and in his off hours ties a handkerchief around his brow, and lives it up in roadhouse bars with a sensuous, zaftic wife with whom he plays the role of impulsive lover. But clearly it’s not enough. In his many scenes with Matt we see in Palmer a guy who has opted to play by the rules but who ironically longs for the “freedom” he sees in a swaggering prisoner, a walking phallus who has no compunctions about kicking to hell the traces of ordinary civility and laws.

Most extraordinarily for this genre of entertainment, Palmer has immense respect for Matt’s most unusual demonstration of the kind of freedom he lacks, the freedom of an artist. Matt spends a lot of his jail time making awful, kitsch oils on canvas, but they represent art to Palmer who has acquired a number of them. (Ironically, the figures of running stallions that Matt draws on walls with burnt charcoal which no one notices actually do have the grace of the ancient cave paintings and express what his paint by number oils do not, Matt’s deeply felt desire for release.) But Palmer’s taste in art and Matt’s talent are not the point in the series. The point is the strange and complicated convolutions of this relationship, a guard who sees a prisoner as innately freer than he is. In part six, the penultimate section of the series, which shows us Matt’s back story, it becomes clear that he is a psychotic who is in prison because he tortures and kills remorselessly. Decent Palmer, knowingly breaks the rules of the prison by accepting Matt’s paintings as presents and does him favors because he longs for the lack of restraint of a homicidal maniac. In these days of Trump worship, let that sink in.

Even more interesting is Tilly. She is in charge of a prison workroom where clothing is made by the inmates. 50ish, and somewhat obese, she sports a head of shapeless light brown/dark blonde hair, speaks in a little girl voice, and has two emotional settings: whining and abusive. Anything but a vision of grace and beauty, let alone intelligence and decency, she astonishingly functions as a center of erotic desire in this narrative. Sweat and Matt go the distance to woo and win her sexually. Of course, their sex with her can easily be written off as little more than a form of situational desperation since in their prison lives she is pretty much the only game in town. But wait. The very notion of sexual desire in and for a woman who looks like Tilly is pretty revolutionary in American entertainment. So is the centrality of a 3-way between such a woman and two unkempt, creepy men. Producers like sexual exploitation to be carried out by plastic mannequins. Tilly, Sweat, and Matt are anything but that. But that’s not all. Tilly has considerable sexual allure for men outside of prison.

Consider the devotion of Tilly’s husband Lyle Mitchell (Eric Lange) even though she cheats on him at every turn. It becomes clear over the course of the series that this extremely decent man who sounds like Homer Simpson, but is also a heroic defender of family and community, is helpless before Tilly, when she exercises her magic spell over him. In the curiously placed back story in penultimate part six, we learn that Lyle is her second husband, and that she was originally married to a guy named Kenny Barrile (Charlie Hofheimer), who is what passes for tall, dark, and dashing in the town of Dannemora. Tilly and Lyle cheated on Kenny and on Lyle’s first wife, and Tilly coldly and viciously coaxed Lyle into helping her win sole custody of her son with Barrile, without a thought to the little boy’s needs. Fat and obnoxious, Tilly is, nevertheless, a dangerous femme fatale within this interestingly defined context.

The series gives us insight into Tilly’s enigmatic allure. The details that accrue around her strongly imply that her response to feeling suffocated by her life is her various attempts at amoral sexual release, which are misread by prisoners and townsmen alike. She “can’t get no satisfaction,” but the men misperceive her as their ticket out of being both literally and figuratively trapped when the reality is that she is only as conflicted as they are about their lack of comfortable and satisfying place in the world as it is.

Dannemora is, in sum, based on long established Freudian theories about the persistence of savagery in the make-up of human beings, who, for all the development of science and the arts in human history, have acquired only a thin veneer of civilization. The seven-eighths beneath the surface is a chaos of impulses we neither understand nor even necessarily know about that dominate the motivations for our actions and mean that we are eternally embroiled in what Freud called civilization and its discontents. Ben Stiller and the writers do not just give this perspective lip service, they embody it in the rhetoric of the series by evolving characterizations expressed through the unspeakable, at least unspeakable through verbal language, which presumes conscious awareness. Dialogue is secondary in this series. Rather, Dannemora uses speaking bodies that give us a perspective on the submerged seven-eighths of human life.

The silences pay the highest dividends with the characters of Matt, Sweat, and Tilly. But even a number of the supporting characters are rendered with intensity through silence. Michael Imperioli’s brief cameo as Governor Andrew Cuomo is written with brisk take charge dialogue, but his most memorable moment is his last onscreen when he is asked sotto vocce if he thinks the jail break was an inside job, and he silently and meaningfully replies with physical gestures and a glance. David Morse is most resonant in his scenes as Gene Palmer when, as an actor, he is thrown back on subtext; for example in an ironic moment when he comes to Matt’s cell to apologize for giving him a hard time about some chopped meat that Tilly asked Palmer to give to Matt. Since it is strictly against regulations for prisoners and jail personnel to exchange presents, Palmer is, in effect, apologizing for doing his job. The more cutting irony, since we know, as Palmer does not, that Tilly has secreted hacksaw blades in the chopped meat, is that Palmer’s kind humanity toward Matt is contaminated by his blindness about his role in Matt’s plans to betray that empathetic gesture. But above and beyond that it is here that we see most clearly the layers of Palmer’s conflicted personality through everything he does not say as he apologizes, but which is expressed through the wordless physical affect of his perverse respect for Matt. In this scene his physical expressions, as he offers Matt a hip flask filled with liquor, create an unspoken, illegal sign of his identification with Matt’s wildness and deviance.

The extraordinary performances of Dano as Sweat, Del Toro as Matt, and Arquette as Tilly are built not on their delivery of their lines, but on the way they make of their bodies windows into the mysterious innards of their characters. Dano rises to the occasion very well through a body that bespeaks his frustration as an intelligent man with no recourse within the system. Del Toro is stunning in his wordless, ability to convey through the muscularity of face and body Matt’s swaggering sense of himself as the uncrowned king of the “honor block” in Clinton, which gives a chosen few prisoners something like the run of the place. But the greatest of these is Arquette. Using her face and her eyes, Arquette makes Tilly’s body speak of a delicious secret she believes she harbors of how she exercises a freedom from the limitations of her situation of which no one guesses. Her subtextual amoral craftiness radiates from every pore. Until, of course, her illusions about fooling the world around her shatter.

Ben Stiller uses Arquette to full advantage in the climactic montage at the end of part five, when he cross cuts fragments depicting the prisoners’ escape with fragments depicting Tilly’s physical breakdown just at the time she is supposed to be meeting Matt and Sweat to escape with them after they emerge in the middle of the night from their tunnel under the streets of Dannemora. The montage begins with Tilly and Lyle in a Chinese restaurant. Matt has given Tilly two tablets to knock Lyle out, which she is supposed to put in his drink that night. The unspoken plan is that Matt will kill Lyle while he is unconscious. Tilly, more embroiled within the domesticity of her marriage than she knows, is literally incapable of putting the tablets in Lyle’s Sprite. Her body talks about the impossibility of her mission, as it convulses in violent spasms and her words become incoherent. The sounds of her physical trauma bleed from her scenes in the hospital to which she is rushed into the scenes of Matt and Sweat leaving the jail. Rhythmically the montage works through a complex, conflicted tension between her implosion and Matt’s and Sweat’s prologue to collapse, a prologue that is, ironically, the physicality of their delusion that their freedom is at hand.

As Matt and Sweat move through their escape route, with barely a word, their faces and bodies silently reveal their own ambivalences as they struggle toward release and also struggle with a fearful, unexamined anxiety about leaving the prison structure. Once in the street, seeing that Tilly has not kept her word about meeting them with her car, they reveal how unsure they are about whether to go forward or return to Clinton, partly through dialogue, but mostly through their bodies. They don’t know how to be without the bars. Nor do they know each other outside of the organized life of the jail. At the end of part five, they reach a point at which they share a cigarette and the last moment they will ever know of comaraderie and shared purpose, as wordlessly, from the depths of their physical and emotional beings they know the pure joy of the thought of freedom, if not its actual reality.

It’s downhill from there. Lost in the mountainous forest into which they go to avoid capture, their individual psyches drain inexorably of the coherence they knew at Clinton and suffer from the increasing reality that the the two of them are radically incompatible. This is chaos, not freedom. The mostly anonymous police, identities blotted out by their uniforms, chase them with dogs, helicopters, and militarized manpower; they are the only form of order we see as Sweat and Matt blunder around in the trees, taking shelter in a series of abandoned or empty structures which mark places where non-prisoner townspeople have gone from time to time to seek release from their oppressive lives in the “freedom” of nature. The number of dilapidated trailers, run down cabins, and burnt out remains of cabins in which Sweat and Matt hunker down temporarily bespeak evidence of a wide spread desire for the kind of escape Thoreau rhapsodized about in Walden and the futility of that longing. There’s no place for anyone to run to. Not the forest, and certainly not Mexico, of which Tilly and the guys had dreamed when making their plans; nor Canada, which becomes the logical destination from their upstate New York prison when Sweat and Matt are actually on the run. Between Tilly’s collapse in the face of the elicit freedom her sexuality seemed to promise, the collapse of Matt’s and Sweat’s illegal sprint for the exit; and the evidence of the failures of law abiding citizens to thrive in freedom, the series turns the entire tradition of the jail break movie inside out and upside down.

Ultimately, this show about brief, ambiguous escapes is reminiscent of the fatalism of the early 20th century American naturalist novels in which the plight of trapped characters becomes a microcosm of the American macrocosm, a culture depicted gloomily as the habitation of beings with no real place either in nature or culture, no core identity, no coherence outside of the deadening rules and conventions society has invented. This is a vision that is too bleak for my taste, but I respect it because it goes well beyond being the same old familiar jailbreak story. It has a perspective. It is a creative narrative expression of the desire to understand and explore the human condition. I admire almost all of the few television shows that manage to achieve any coherent vision at all, as opposed to the glut of TV fare that is little more than clever or not so clever manipulation of narrative formulas. Hats off, Johnson, Tolkin, Stiller, and company.

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