'Escape at Dannemora' recap: Ben Stiller's triumphant 'Deacon Blues' moment, and how Steely Dan steals the show
Ben Stiller has always stated his admiration for Walter Becker and Steely Dan, but his use of the seminal duo's songs in 'Escape at Dannemora' is stunning
'Escape at Dannemora' is arguably one of the best shows of 2018, and there’s hardly any need to go into why because it’s been said ad nauseam on this website and on myriad of others. (Ed: Oh, go on!) Well, ok then.
Apart from the exceptional performances by the cast, there’s a sense that this is a product of Ben Stiller’s heart as much as his mind. From the gritty prison sequences to the sparse lives of his protagonists, there’s love at work here. Every scene is crafted, but not with a Terrence Malick emphasis on beauty, but rather as a balance of reality and art. Go too far one way with this subject matter and you’ll be damned.
Take for instance the scene where David Sweat (Paul Dano) is busting through walls hoping to find a way out of prison. Sure, it’s all well-acted, and well-filmed, but the real magic lies in the fact that it’s done to the backing track of Elton John’s 'Take Me To The Pilot', which is strange, because the lyrics of the song make no sense –- a more prosaic 'Whiter Shade of Pale' -- a fact that Elton John himself attested to in an interview with James Corden in 2018.
Now it would be great if Stiller chose the song to match the muddled frustration felt by Sweat as he literally ‘sweated’ his way through wall after wall, but it’s probable that the director just liked the song and hey, there’s a reference to a prison in it.
Then there's Sweat's smile as he lets Metallica's 'Seek and Destroy' transport him to another place. It's the same smile most middle-aged Metallica fans have when they listen to the band's early tunes. Life was simpler back then, Cliff Burton was still alive and James Hetfield didn't own an acoustic guitar. Just an upward curl of the lips spoke volumes. "Searching...Seek and Destroy!" Bliss.
Which brings us to another band, and this is where the magic gets all kinds of wonderful. Stiller has always stated his admiration for Walter Becker and Steely Dan, but his use of the seminal duo’s songs in 'Escape at Dannemora' is stunning. Take for instance the scene where Richard Matt is called in for a heart-to-heart with Lyle Mitchell (Eric Lange).
You probably noticed the strains of Steely Dan’s 'Do It Again' wafting around the work room like a jilted lover looking for a way out of an awkward situation. And, then you found it was emerging from Matt’s headphones. It didn’t need to be heard, but there it was. That’s Stiller we presume...the fan. Maybe Matt was a fan too, but he’s dead so we can’t check.
But the most unnerving Steely Dan moment comes in Episode 3 when Tilly Mitchell (Patricia Arquette) goes to the supermarket to pick up the ground beef in which to hide Matt’s hacksaw blades. It’s the instrumental version of 'Deacon Blues' playing through the PA system. It could have been Richard Clayderman, hell it could have been Kenny G, but it wasn’t. It was Steely Dan’s melancholy tribute to misspent youth riding a suicidal lightning bolt.
The sterile nature of the scene only served to highlight the lack of lyric, so sparse words would only sully the emptiness of Tilly's life and the sheer spartan beauty of middle-class humdrum. Take, for instance, this verse from the song, it perfectly sums up Tilly’s state of mind:
“You call me a fool
You say it's a crazy scheme
This one's for real
I already bought the dream
So useless to ask me why
Throw a kiss and say goodbye
I'll make it this time
I'm ready to cross that fine line”
'Deacon Blues' was an inspired choice, it’s a song so full of stoic fatalism it’s hard not to be moved by its music in this context. And, to strip it down to its bare, almost karaoke, bones prove that Stiller is reaching back into his past to inspire his present. Stiller is no mug with a soundtrack as anyone who has watched the superb 'Cable Guy' and 'Tropic Thunder' will attest, but with 'Escape at Dannemora' he’s moved a bit closer to what Martin Scorsese and Cameron Crowe do with music in their films: Cast it.
'Escape at Dannemora' is driven forward by its soundtrack as much as it is by its director’s vision, its stars’ performances, and the grim reality of its premise. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen sang on 'Deacon Blues':
“They got a name for the winners in the world
I want a name when I lose”
Both Sweat and Matt fortunately lost, and now with 'Escape at Dannemora', they’ve got a name.