'Escape at Dannemora' director Ben Stiller ensures suspense in an already sensationalized story with subtly crafted montages
It is truly remarkable what spacing things out with a series of shots as the plot progresses can do to make an already intriguing story all the more captivating.
Prison break thrillers based on true incidents often fall prey to exaggerations, or simply - for the lack of a better word - over sensationalizing. But Ben Stiller's ongoing dark portrayal of the infamous Clinton Correctional Facility escape cancels out the scope for sensational portrayals with its multitude of montages slowing things down to maintain a sublime balance. The fact that the real story of prison inmates Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) and David Sweat's (Paul Dano) elaborate escape was cut out for a Hollywood story to be shown on screen, also works in favor of the new Showtime show, 'Escape at Dannemora.' Yet all that aside, it is truly remarkable what spacing things out with a series of shots as the plot progresses can do to make an already intriguing story all the more captivating.
For those unaware, in June 2015, inmates Matt and Sweat were found missing from their beds at Clinton Correctional Facility, during a regular morning bed check. They had dug out tunnels under their cells using tools provided by a prison sweatshop employee, Joye 'Tilly' Mitchell (Patricia Arquette) who the two had manipulated into helping them in exchange for illicit prison room sex. Eventually, Matt was spotted and shot to death on sight, and within two days, Sweat was also found, shot, and taken into custody. The entire manhunt and investigation of the case was said to have cost up to $23 million.
Now, with a story like that, it becomes almost impossible to keep thinkings from spilling out, especially considering people already know the outcome and the end. There's no big spoiler reveal or suspenseful twists that a creator could use to his benefit when it comes to keeping viewers hooked, and this is where Stiller's remarkable usage of montages come in. Almost acting in a manner of symbolism, the assortment of scenes and shots perfectly portray what's going on in the extraordinary minds of the seemingly ordinary inmates - something that has been consistent from the very beginning of the show.
Be it montages of the bleak monotony of life at the prison's tailor shop, where Sweat was an employee, and Tilly was the in charge, or the ending scene which The Atlantic has revealed is "cryptically ambiguous, and then with a montage featuring an oil painting of a puppy in a T-shirt that reads 'Wazzup?' - everything sort of mocks the authorities from Matt's perspective especially. The Wikipedia entry of the real-life incident shares that after their escape, Matt's bed was found with a dummy of his body, and a note that read 'Have a nice day' alongside a stereotypical 'Asian smiley face' wearing a triangular rice hat on it. And personally speaking, the 'Wazzup?' puppy oil painting could be correlated to this.
But it is mostly the montages that the latest and third episode dropped on its viewers - as a perfect mid-run reveal of the seven-episode limited series - that has us intrigued the most. Episode three had four most pivotal scenes panning out the progression of Matt and Sweat's escape plan, and all of them can be labeled as montages showcasing their developing bond. It's no secret that this bond was a key factor behind the success of the plan, because let's be real - it's not possible to burrow out of prison into the wild, unless you really have each other's backs; and of course - killer manipulation techniques that Matt seemed to abound in, considering how effortlessly he took Sweat under his wing.
And it is this very essential nuance of their relationship that the episode plays out in the form of montages. It starts with Matt's attempts at getting rid of a certain 'Scary Gary' who is assigned to the cell right next to his own. It's beautiful considering this is Matt's way of assuring Sweat that he wants the latter around because they are in this together. Which is proven wonderfully in the next very tasteful montage where the two can actually be seen sawing through the grates of their cell as per their plan, to create an escape route into the space underneath the prison.
Their bond displayed in a sequence of quiet scenes between the two doesn't stop there as the two soon proceed to check out the area they have just managed to dig into - to explore their options and risks for the perfect hatching of plans. It's remarkable how pivotal moments like these which are so significant to the plot, were executed via a series of montages. But what takes it a whole notch higher is the scene where Sweat - desperate to taste freedom - slams a sledgehammer to the many different walls in the prison's underground that's keeping him from achieving his goal.
Subtly, gradually, yet tactfully, these scenes bring out just why a story that we already have read about and seen unfold on the media, still holds a colossal level of suspense for viewers. But the secret ingredient in its quotient of suspense is how Stiller has spaced the rest of the events out - what technicalities he is about to wow us with, and what other montages of realizations his viewers will be enlightened by in the episodes to come.