Monday, April 24, 2017

New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell (Mountainair Films/Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After The Psycho She Met Online Lifetime showed a movie they’d been heavily hyping for weeks now: New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell, based on a real-life New York prison escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility in June 2015. The escape, in which two convicts with the unfortunate names David Sweat (Joe Anderson) and Richard Matt (Myk Watford) broke out and had help doing so from two prison employees, Joyce Mitchell (Penelope Ann Miller) and Gene Palmer — and were at large for three weeks before Matt was shot down while threatening police with a shotgun and Sweat was taken alive two days later — made national news. Indeed, I can remember thinking when the story broke, “Someday this will be made into a Lifetime movie” — and now here it is. It’s also quite well done, written and directed by Stephen Tolkin — who’s done reality-based Lifetime movies before, including The Craigslist Killer and Cleveland Abduction, and also has some feature-film credits — and vividly acted by the three principals as well as by Daniel Roebuck as Joyce’s husband Lyle, a hapless guy with a penchant for boring the shit out of her with conversational rambles. He’s still turned on by her but she couldn’t be less interested in him — they both work at the local prison and at one point, when he finally suspects she’s smuggling contraband to the prisoners, chews her out for jeopardizing these great jobs they both have, making $50,000 a year each with full health coverage, including dental (reinforcing how prisons have become one of the few industries where well-paying blue-collar jobs are still available — reason enough for working-class voters to support candidates who are “tough on crime”) — even though, as she tells Sweat one day when they’re alone together in the storeroom of the prison’s tailor shop (they make uniforms for the New York state police), she was carrying on an affair with Lyle while still married to husband number one, and in one particular throe of passion they were caught screwing on the railroad tracks behind where they worked. “Didn’t you get splinters?” Sweat asks — though the message Joyce’s story sends him is that here is a woman with a strong sex drive who’d be a sitting duck for a concentrated seduction campaign and would be willing to do anything for a man who’d give her ashes a good hauling, or even throw hints in that direction. We also know that about Joyce because we see her in bed — her husband is there but she’s ignoring him, and he’s already nodding off while she has earbuds on and is listening to a particularly lubricious soft-core porn passage in an audiobook version of a romance novel.

Actually Joyce never gets it on with Sweat — even when she’s caught after the escape and interrogated, and is admitting to just about everything she did (including smuggling the prisoners hacksaw blades and evading the metal detectors by stuffing them in hamburger meat and freezing it), she insists that she and Sweat were never lovers, though she and the much homelier Matt were. We’re told in the dialogue that he has an especially impressive “manhood,” and we get an unmistakable scene in that storeroom in which Joyce gives him oral sex and then he pulls her up for the full “treatment.” Despite its rather clinical title, New York Prison Break works on just about every level, from the intrinsic kinky interest of the story to the highly atmospheric direction Tolkin gives it, to the Hitchcockian game he plays throughout where he shows so much detail of how Sweat and Matt are literally digging their way out of the prison we end up rooting for them to succeed even though Tolkin tried to forestall that sort of moral reversal by beginning his film with a graphic depiction of the crime Sweat and Matt committed (a robbery of a gun store that included shooting down a police officer and torturing the gun-store owner into revealing the location of a secret cash stash the crooks believed he had even though we suspect that, like the victims of In Cold Blood, the “stash” was just a rumor in the crime world and didn’t actually exist). Most prison-escape movies hedge their bets by making the prisoners sympathetic and the jailers the bad guys — either they’re Nazis running a concentration camp or the authorities on Devil’s Island or some such place lording it over unjustly convicted victims — but in this one the bad guys are bad guys, and yet through Tolkin’s writing and direction and the appropriately edgy acting of Anderson and Watford they come off as just the sort of sexually irresistible studs that might turn on a woman like Joyce Mitchell full of unfulfilled sexual longings and desires. Penelope Ann Miller’s performance as Joyce is also excellent, particularly when she switches from bored housewife and career woman to acting like a giddy teenager in the first throes of romantic passion when she gets lurid notes from Sweat and contemplates a future with him on the outside — a dream of hers he, of course, has no intention of fulfilling! Miller manages to bring her (and the character’s) actual age (the actress herself is 53 and looks it — a well-preserved 53, but still 53) and her teenage-style immaturity in her crush on Sweat (even though it’s Matt, not Sweat, who does the down-’n’-dirty with her — and we see her fantasy of the three of them in Mexico jointly canoodling at a beach resort) into a nerve-wracking and rather repulsive juncture that makes us want to walk into the screen and tell her, “Just act your age already!”

New York Prison Break is obviously an exploitation film aimed at taking advantage of the publicity surrounding the real event, and yet it’s also a finely honed piece of drama — not a great film by any means, but a solidly appealing one that manages to offer quality entertainment and is particularly good at dramatizing the sexual frustration that leads Joyce Mitchell to her fatal infatuation with Sweat and Matt. (One thing Tolkin’s focus on Joyce’s literal and figurative “seduction” led him to do was write Gene Palmer, the other prison employee who helped the two men escape, entirely out of the story — as well as anyone else on the prison staff who might have aided and abetted the escapees: at least some members of New York state law enforcement were convinced that other prison employees besides Mitchell and Palmer helped the escape, even though Mitchell and Palmer were the only two people charged and convicted of doing so.) New York Prison Break is a fun movie, appealingly dark without being so gloomy as to be unwatchable, and where Tolkin scores best is in the clashes between the three main characters — Mitchell the infatuated mature woman (it’s established that she’s already a grandmother) who’s acting like a giddy teenager; Matt the confident seducer who’s able to get what he wants with his gifts as an artist (he paints quite a few pictures, including ones of Mitchell and other prison staffers which he trades for favors, and he has one of Marilyn Monroe in his cell) and a lover; and Sweat the callous but deliciously hunky brute (hell, if he were really as Joe Anderson plays him I’d have probably had the hots for him!) who’s willing to exploit not only Joyce but Matt as well — in one of the film’s most chilling scene, after the two have broken out together (and after Sweat has peremptorily told Matt he won’t be included in the escape unless he loses enough pounds to be able to fit through the prison’s ventilation pipes they’re going to use as part of their way out), Sweat dumps Matt and tells him that now that his plans have changed and they’re fleeing to Canada instead of Mexico, he won’t need Matt because the only reason he included Matt was that Matt spoke Spanish and he doesn’t have to have a Spanish-speaker on board if he’s going to Canada instead. New York Prison Break is the sort of quirky delight that keeps us unlikely Lifetime buffs watching this often exploitative (particularly in their “reality” series, less so in their movies) but also often oddly compelling network.