Binge-r #114: Escape at Dannemora + Cargo
ESCAPE AT DANNEMORA
Streaming Service: Stan
Availability: All seven episodes now streaming
A real life drama as much about the weight of incarceration as the lure of breaking free, Escape at Dannemora begins not with the escaped prisoners – Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano) – who in 2015 worked their way out of a maximum security jail in upstate New York, but the woman they left behind. Under suspicion for aiding their flight, jail employee Joyce ‘Tilly’ Mitchell (Patricia Arquette) is apprehensive and defensive under questioning. The scene takes it’s time in physically and psychologically revealing the married 51-year-old, who is suspected of sleeping with one or both of the inmates, and that is the defining strength of this calmly impressive limited series: it never rushes. With its patient approach the seven episodes are not just a slow burn thriller, but an explanation for why seemingly inexplicable events took drastic shape.
The pacing is assured and the unaffected direction from Ben Stiller, a long way from the farcical Zoolander franchise, picks up granular details. Beginning six months prior to their escape, it shows Matt and Sweat’s place in the crowded, complex ecosystem of the ageing Clinton Correctional Facility. The former is a fixer, tight with cell block guard Gene Palmer (David Morse), with the latter as his offsider. But their comparative privilege is an illusion – it just takes having his cell moved without warning for Sweat to realise his predicament and agree with Matt that Tilly’s commitment is an opportunity they should exploit.
The town of Dannemora runs right up to prison’s vast walls, which matches its economic function. Locals work in the jail, as their forebears did, with Tilly overseeing the sewing workshop while her loyal but uninspiring husband Lyle (Eric Lange) is a handyman. When Matt and Palmer hang out they’re more like colleagues than prisoner and guard, and after a while you see that each morning there’s little difference between how the inmates and the staff both check in for work. There’s no tension in when they’ll escape so the plot focuses on the why and how, tracking their nocturnal preparations as they access and explore the services tunnels. Here blue steel is a reference to the metal shavings they have to dispose of.
Set against the institutional green design, del Toro has a wolfish watchfulness and Dano is poised between calculation and crisis, but the standout performance belongs to Arquette. The Boyhood Academy Award winner gives detailed understanding to qualities that too many production would write off: Tilly’s abrasiveness and bad judgment are informed by her diminished circumstances, while her affairs allows her a genuine sense of enchantment despite the hurried sex and smuggled contraband. As much as she’s bending to the duo’s demands, there’s a very real sense of wanting her own escape, and the series never looks down on her misdeeds or even delusions. “NCIS is starting,” Lyle calls out one night while she’s excitedly writing a letter to Sweat, and in that moment Escape at Dannemora shows that being locked away takes many debilitating forms.
NEWLY ADDED MOVIES
Cargo (Netflix, 2018, 103 minutes): Befitting the setting of outback South Australia, the zombie apocalypse in this tense survival story is a sparse and inexplicable experience – there are just enough signs to make clear to married couple Andy and Kay (Martin Freeman and Susie Porter) that the world they knew will never be seen by their baby daughter, Rosie. Filmmakers Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling expertly create lurching threats and flashes of terror, but as the family tries to find a safe haven – their story interspersed with that of a young Indigenous girl, Thoomi (Simone Landers) – their options cruelly narrow, even as they encounter others who are preparing for the next civilisation. The plotting has echoes of The Road, but Cargo has a distinctly Australian take on the flesh-hungry dead. The most profound aspect is the film’s vision of the indigenous population as survivors, returning to traditional ways and reclaiming lands that have been polluted by development, as David Gulpilil’s elder puts it. These are the people and their relationship to country that Andy must turn to, making for an unexpected and compelling new vision of reconciliation.
New on Netflix: The Coen brothers’ western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018, 133 minutes) begins with slightness and progresses to the sublime, united by astute casting and ravishing frontier images that speak to both freedom and isolation; Daniel Goldhaber’s Cam (2018, 94 minutes) is a bracing example of horror’s new indie wave, tracing with throbbing unease a cam girl’s fracture when a doppelganger takes control of her video feed.
New on SBS on Demand: Juzo Itami’s Japanese comedy Tampopo (1985, 110 minutes) uses deadpan restraint and culinary tradition in the story of a widow (Nobuko Miyamoto) trying to master the making of noodles; an election night party snapshot of pre-Whitlam Australia, Bruce Beresford and David Williamson’s Don’s Party (1976, 84 minutes) is a vernacular period piece suggesting a country that never quite was.
New on Stan: No young actor more intently explores the power of self-reliance than Mia Wasikowska, with Tracks (2013, 109 minutes) her showcase as it tells the story of Robyn Davidson’s 1970s trek with camels across Australia’s vast interior; Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany and Miranda Richardson are formidable in Stronger (2017, 119 minutes), the story of a Boston bombing survivor whose struggles include the unwanted burden of heroism.
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