Benicio Del Toro is one of those rare actors who’s worth seeing in everything he does. Escape at Dannemora is just the latest example, but it’s also one of the Oscar winner’s great roles. Del Toro is great unhinged. His gift is unpredictability, and he’s effortlessly cool. It’s all on display in the new Showtime miniseries. Ben Stiller directs, Patricia Arquette and Paul Dano co-star, but Escape at Dannemora is the Benicio Del Toro show.
New Yorkers (and Lifetime movie fans) likely remember well the 2015 Clinton Correctional prison break. Two murderers, Richard Matt and David Sweat, tunneled their way out of jail using contractors’ tools and hacksaws smuggled in by an accomplice, Joyce Mitchell. Mitchell worked at the way upstate New York prison, colloquially known as “Dannemora,” and was involved in a love triangle with both escapees. The story was destined for multiple TV movie adaptations.
The camp appeal of such lurid material must’ve been irresistible to Del Toro, who’s rarely found on the small screen. He plays Matt, a convict who snapped a 72-year-old man’s neck with his bare hands and dismembered him. Although you’d never guess it from Del Toro’s performance, at least at first. He and Sweat (Dano) live on Honor Block at Dannemora. It’s privileged housing where inmates can use kitchens, TVs, and other amenities not usually available to convicted killers. They both work in the tailor shop run by Joyce (Arquette), and Matt can’t help but notice his buddy is “helping” the boss in the back room quite a bit. Rumors force Sweat out of the shop and Matt moves right in. Soon, he’s the one taking Joyce into the back room.
The word “escape” isn’t even mentioned in the first episode of the miniseries. Instead, a triangle is forged between the three main characters. The groundwork for escape is laid, and Matt develops a plan as soon as he sees Joyce is vulnerable. By the third episode, she’s smuggling hacksaws in ground beef for him. The way Del Toro turns a slithery eel like Matt into a Don Juan is admirable work. But he’s constantly running game.
Matt also finds ways to influence Sweat and a corrections officer named Palmer (David Morse). Matt’s a lifer and someone with pull who can get things inside the prison — like Red in The Shawshank Redemption. So Sweat gravitates to him as a good friend to have inside. Palmer, meanwhile, most bafflingly, admires Matt as an artist. Much of inmate Matt’s spare time is spent painting portraits and he does a number for Palmer in exchange for certain things. This is the stew in which escape simmers, patiently, waiting to boil.
Del Toro pulls the strings as Matt, strutting around the prison like a rooster with his no-sideburns pompadour and shifty eyes. He plays Matt like a cartoon villain, all that’s missing is the long mustache to twirl. He’s obscenely transparent and untrustworthy, which makes his exploits all the more fun. To new fish, Matt’s an intimidator, and he plays that side well, disciplining one inmate before making him a trusted sidekick. Del Toro flips that switch easily. He can handle badass as well as batshit. It’s just rare to see him do both in the same performance.
At the end of Escape at Dannemora‘s third episode, with Joyce under his spell and the escape plan in full swing, Matt reveals everything to her in the back room. He tells her, “You, me, and David, Mexico.” Joyce lights up at the plan but scoffs when he tells her it might take years to escape. When he sees her reaction, Matt towers over her and slowly warns, in a guttural accent straight from the depths of Hell, “DON’T TELL ANYBODYYYYYYYYYYY.”
It’s the type of moment Del Toro fans live for.
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