In June 2015, two inmates escaped from the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility in the small upstate New York town of Dannemora. The subsequent manhunt for the two men caused schools to cancel class, highways to close and ultimately accrued a cost of over 20 million dollars. The investigation revealed a story much more complex and bizarre than originally thought.

Ben Stiller tackles this stranger-than-fiction story in “Escape at Dannemora.” Benicio Del Toro (“Sicario: Day of the Soldado”) and Paul Dano (“Okja”) play the two escapees, Richard Matt and David Sweat. Both are convicted murderers who were placed in a block in the prison that granted them extra privileges such as televisions and cooking stations. Their escape is aided by Tilly Mitchell (Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood”), a prison worker who is romantically and sexually involved with the two men.

Evoking classic prison movies such as “The Shawshank Redemption,” Stiller masterfully creates an atmosphere that accurately reflects the harshness of life in prison in the desolate tundra of upstate New York. Yet compared with what we would expect, Matt and Sweat are shown to have (relatively speaking) idyllic lives in the prison. Matt is an artist, and he exploits his talent to gain favors from other prison guards. Sweat, while less charismatic and mysterious, is heavily involved in the prison’s tailoring workshop, which is where he gets involved with Mitchell.

While all three lead performances are exceptional, Arquette rises above the rest. Barely recognizable as a rather homely upstate New Yorker (complete with the region’s distinct accent), she is a fascinatingly sympathetic character. The first episode uses her testimony for a federal investigator, and from the minute we meet her, it is difficult to see her as anything other than a poor woman who is living vicariously through the fantasies she concocts with Sweat and later Matt.

Yet there is nothing exactly redeeming about any of these three characters. Matt and Sweat are cold-blooded criminals and master manipulators, and while Mitchell is sympathetic, it’s difficult to ever justify her actions. So far, Stiller has not explored Mitchell’s life story enough to perhaps give a bit more context as to why she risked her life and career for such an outlandish plan.

Stiller opted to film several scenes in the village of Dannemora itself, capturing the area’s isolation and solitude, as well as its economically-downtrodden landscape. There is a lot of further potential in exploring the region itself to explain the motivations of the characters.

Stiller’s drama directorial debut is a meticulously researched, planned and executed work. Brimming with potential and tension, “Escape at Dannemora” is a worthy watch for anyone interested in dark, gritty drama.    

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