'Escape at Dannemora': Why Benicio del Toro's version of Richard Matt deserves the tag of TV sociopath of the year
del Toro's calculated, timely revelations and the logical insanity he infused into his character is what makes his version of Richard Matt, an elevated sociopath like no other.
Earlier this year, all the way back in April when BBC America had released 'Killing Eve,' the entire suspense thriller culture was left shocked and as millennials would call it, 'shook,' by the brazen portrayal of a criminal sociopath. Jodie Comer as the show's antagonist Villanelle was not your regular assassin. In fact, what she really wants is, "Normal stuff. Nice life. Cool flat. Fun job. Someone to watch movies with." But before Villanelle's story could unfold in an upcoming second season, 2018 decided to gift us with yet another strikingly morbid, but aesthetically unique sociopath in the form of Benicio del Toro's Richard Matt in 'Escape at Dannemora.'
The limited series starring del Toro from creator Ben Stiller is based on the infamous Clinton Correctional Facility escape from 20015, where convicted murderers Matt and David Sweat (Paul Dano) had tunneled out of the prison using tools provided by prison employee Joyce 'Tillie' Mitchell (Patricia Arquette), in exchange for sexual gratification. It had led to a $23 million manhunt and investigations, and overexposed as a sensationalized escape, bringing it right in league with Stephen King's 'The Shawshank Redemption.' Eventually, Matt had been shot to death at sight, and Sweat was shot and taken into custody, where he's still serving time. But what the story also managed to do was inspire Stiller to bless us with his dark Showtime drama, and TV's sociopath of the year in the form of del Toro's Matt.
If there's one thing the world is certain of, it's how meticulously trained assassins, sociopaths and most serial killers are. They are known for their absolute precision - executing each task to the last, minute detail. And filled with these very virtues, and an additional eerie layer of devious charm and calculated subtlety, del Toro's Matt come to life on the show - making viewers question themselves every now and then, just how a man as highly regarded within the prison walls, could ever be a monstrous murderer?
To start off, Stiller infused this remarkable strategy into the storytelling, which leads to viewers being introduced to Matt as a prison-guru slash art connoisseur, who is held in high esteem among his fellow inmates. That Matt is a ringleader of sorts within the prison walls, gets established from the very first episode. And for the rest six, we see him as some derivative of a scheming messiah to his accomplice David Sweat. It's no secret either that he's a master manipulator, but what he also happens to be extremely good at, is vocal expressions of compassion for the people he's brainwashing.
And del Toro is effortlessly terrifying at delivering that messed up concoction of a character who can carry on an elaborate conversation on the arts, promise a virtuous life outside the deal town and its bland prison walls, but also send an alarming shiver down the spine, all in a matter of seconds. This becomes pretty much the reason behind the idea that it was del Toro who gifted us the beautifully captured monster on screen, despite Stiller helming the project. Even more so, because as Stiller himself has claimed before, every call about how Matt was going t be portrayed, the spontaneity, the timing, the deliverance of dialogues - all of it was done with del Toro's active involvement in the decision-making process.
"He's had more experience playing characters like this and doing sequences like this than I have as a director for sure, and so I was following his lead in terms of how he wanted to approach it, having to get into the mode of playing this guy," Stiller told The Hollywood Reporter. "It was really interesting for me to work with him on that process, because I feel like he had a very clear idea going in of trying to figure out a way to make each scene interesting for an audience, but also as a character, trying to find a way into it that told you something about the guy."
But the wonderful thing about del Toro's Matt is that even though the character manages to gnaw at your insides with his terrifying malicious grin, tilted head, and intense glare is, he is not devoid of bearing the consequences of his deviance. The series might have started off with us being aware of Matt's fluff-side - in that, he was an artist, getting into the minds of people using their weakest links - and here Stiller's expertise must be recognized because up until the fifth episode, he had managed to make the show all about the planning. This is significant because, in a seven-episode series, five episodes were spent into showing just how meticulous a planner, and articulate at executing the said plan, Matt was. It sort of makes one develop a vague respect for the convicted murderer's intelligence.
Yet, at the very next moment, in the fifth episode itself, del Toro does a turnaround of attitude from the character's supposed calm and composed aura. The meticulous sociopath who was helming the prison escape plan and urging Sweat to stick along with it turned into pretty much of a panic-struck brat throwing temper tantrums once things didn't go according to plan after the two dug out of prison. Tillie was not there to offer them a ride as per the initial plan and it sort of makes Matt lose all his calm and panic like he hadn't been the crafty, poised mastermind all along. He acts like a regular sidekick if you will, and at that moment, del Toro's sociopathic monster becomes a helpless human, despite having accomplished the one feat he had invested so heavily in all these months prior.
It is right at this point, however, when viewers are almost assured that this is the downfall of the high and mighty Matt, del Toro unleashes upon us a certain madness through his character which is enough to leave one unnerved and visibly terrified of the onscreen avatar. The sixth episode sees Matt scaring Tillie right after cracking a few smiles with her, just to assure that she still harbors legitimate fear for him, unhampered by their illicit prison room sex. This is quite metaphorical because as del Toro is scaring the wits out of Tillie with his on-screen avatar, he does a remarkable job of leaving viewers shaken too, not letting them quite forget who this man inherently is: a criminal mastermind.
Following that is an impeccably timed flashback which directly paints the unfiltered imagery of Matt's criminal past - the crime he was serving a life sentence for. We find out about Matt having kidnapped his former boss, a man in his 70's, before beating him to death, dismembering his body, and dumping it in a river close by. And within seconds, del Toro manages to recreate the character in a new light to show the deep-rooted darkness he harbors inside. The dark, sinister smiles complement the flashback of his past and suddenly, as a viewer, one's entire perception, despite being aware of the real-life incident, is shattered and rebuilt all within the span of minutes.
Stiller likes to call it del Toro's 'logic in that moment.' "That's what's so great about him as an actor. It's never arbitrary. It's motivated, but it's very brave in terms of the choices," he says, in approval of the uninhibited manner del Toro brought Matt to life on the series adaptation. But he is not the only one in approval of del Toro's rendition of Matt. The deceased convict's only daughter Jamie Scalise, also agrees that a neat job has been done in her father's portrayal and his natural stance.
"I can see that person in there... For me, it was always about his eyes," Scalise told WIVBTV in a recent interview. She further explained seeing her father face to face during the prison visit was her only memory of him, as she didn't grow up with him around. "Sitting across from the table is the only connection I have (with Matt) and seeing Benicio play my father - I think he picked up on a lot of that. He really cued into his command in that prison," she added.
And it is pretty much this approval of the nuances with which Matt's character has been handled by del Toro, which makes us thank the actor for blessing us with the TV sociopath of the year. True, we wouldn't have been able to envision these sudden, out of the blue jabs at our naivete as a viewer, had it not been for Stiller's actor's-director attitude, but as he himself shares, it was del Toro himself calling the shots on when to introduce the maniacal violent side of Matt. These calculated, timely revelations and the logical insanity that del Toro infused into the character is what makes his version of Richard Matt, an elevated sociopath like no other.