‘True Grit”- Escape At Dannamora (TV Review)

I’m not one to be pulled in by star power. I don’t believe the industry adage actors get “bums on seats”. It’s great stories, great direction and great production that gets me interested in a show. Not Brad’s chiselled pecks, or Leo’s swooning eyes, or Margot’s…everything. It’s why I couldn’t wait for the new Sky Atlantic series Escape At Dannamora to begin on New Year’s Day.

Okay okay- I’ll admit it that’s not wholly true. I’m the same as all the other shallow, fame-hungry plebeians addicted to the cult of celebrity. What got my bum on the seat was dark eyed Benecio Del Toro, quirky grin on his face, ambling round a jail cell, acting rather aloof while contemplating where his life went so drastically wrong during long lonely nights in his cell or sat painting lovely oil paintings.

Escape At Dannamora is, I am reliably told by a sibling who lived in the US at the time of the incident, based on the true story of Richard Matt (Del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano) escaping from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannamora, New York State with the help of prison worker Joyce ‘Tilly’ Mitchell (Patricia Arquette).

Joyce is romantically involved with Sweat, having chosen him as supervisor on the work floor of a sewing room where inmates are paid the handsome sum of 37 cents an hour to produce clothes. At any opportunity, Sweat is called into the stationary cupboard by Tilly to “get more thread” or a new light bulb or some other unimportant maintenance item. However once inside and the door locked no thread finding takes place. Instead, Tilly and Sweat partake in awkward unattractive ugly sex on a grubby disused worktop. When Sweat loses his job Matt takes his place, the whole sordid scenario repeats itself.

The three main player’s bizarre and rather sick love triangle is the vehicle that allows for Matt and Sweat’s escape. Matt discovers how to break out his cell and into the prison basement, Sweat does all the hard work breaking down any obstacles in their way, and Joyce, having been charmed by the two inmates, is the accomplice who smuggles in the tools that help them bust out.

Real life is always a lot harsher than the airbrushed sheen of cinema. Spoiler Alert! – although it doesn’t really matter as it’s not so much about the story as the depiction of events that fascinates with this programme – Matt and Sweat do escape Dannamora, but not for very long. Matt was shot and killed 50 miles west of the prison, while Sweat was arrested a mere one and half miles from the US-Canada border.

-Photo: Chris Saunders/SHOWTIME –

But that’s not the harrowing part of the story. It’s when you read in stark detail the crimes committed- particularly by Richard Matt, serving 25 years to life for the murder of his former boss, 72-year-old William Rickerson, who was simultaneously beat up in the trunk of Matt’s accomplice’s car before having his neck broken and his body dismembered and thrown in a nearby river- that the “hook” of the story really comes to the fore.

The show’s directed by Ben Stiller, yes Zoolander, which always makes me a little nervous as it seems young Stiller’s getting a little too clever for his high fashion boots. It also seems, after watching both this and his directorial debut, the remake of Walter Mitty, that Stiller’s ultimately an accomplished director.

As much as I’m a fan of Del Toro he’s easily matched by the talents of Dano as Sweat and Arquette who transforms herself into Tilly. The only pang I have with American TV’s representation of middle America- the Donald trump supporting demographic, (which Tilly so evidently comes across as), is TV execs like to represent them as real thick. Tilly, and particularly husband Lyle, come across near mentally disabled. I like to think, but don’t really believe, one of the most powerful political forces of recent American history is really that…stupid.

All in all it’s a world class production from Del Toro, Stiller and co. At the beginning I felt Escape At Dannamora was a little too Prison Break-y for my liking, but pushing past this fear you soon realise just how much better it is than all the other prison shows out there.

Catch all episodes on Sky Atlantic now.