I knew nothing about the real-life events depicted in Showtime’s new limited series Escape at Dannemora. Perhaps that’s the best mindset to have going into this deliberately paced, fully compelling series, directed by Ben Stiller. Yes, THAT Ben Stiller. Dannemora smartly focuses on the details of prison life – the complex sociology ecosystems that are established to maintain a sense of humanity within the lockup world. I could imagine a scenario in which people may find the pacing too slow in a modern binge-addict television environment, but Dannemora echoes great 1970s-era filmmaking. In films like Dog Day Afternoon (and really most of Sidney Lumet’s work), the focus is on the character and social elements of the crime, less on the sensational aspects you would typically find in major Hollywood product.
Under this influence, Stiller directs Dannemora with an incredibly assured hand, bolstered by tremendous work from his actors. In particular, Patricia Arquette who, for my money, gives the performance of her storied career. You’ll never forget her in this role.
Arquette plays Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell, the head seamstress in the Clinton Correctional Facility located in the Village of Dannemora, New York. Unhappy, overweight, and likely majorly depressed, Arquette’s Mitchell yearns for drama in her life – the kind of drama that husband Lyle (Eric Mitchell) will never provide. She connects (sexually) with prison inmates Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano) and eventually helps them orchestrate the infamous prison break-out in 2015.
Dannemora lavishes on the details of the escape. What was it like to work in a prison tailor shop? How do inmates really obtain illegal contraband? What’s the social structure of a prison environment? Stiller’s series covers a wide array of material, eventually settling on the details of the escape itself and that aftermath. Stiller employs a patient hand with the material as shaped by Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin. There’s an extraordinary amount of detail on display, and the urge is to jump to the flashier, prison break sequences. But in doing so, you miss the point, the heart and soul of the series.
That heart and soul lives within Patricia Arquette’s Mitchell. You’ve never seen Arquette like this. Frumpy and painfully average. Completely downplaying her natural beauty in an unrecognizable, ordinary appearance. Her Joyce Mitchell longs for glamour and for exotic attractions, and it’s that obsession that leads her to cringe-inducing, illegal errors in judgment. Arquette plays Joyce Mitchell as a lovestruck teenager, unaware of the implications of her actions and seemingly unconcerned with criminal activity. This is the kind of woman who would trace her lovers’ names in hearts on a notebook like a hormonal teenager. It’s painful to watch at times, but it’s one of the best performances on television you’ll see this year or next. Arquette has frankly never been this good – not even in her Oscar-winning performance in Boyhood. She’s raw, unencumbered by vanity, and fully committed to the role. It’s an astonishingly brilliant piece of work.
Del Toro and Dano are also very good in their roles as Matt and Sweat, respectively. They’re such charismatic actors that you completely forget they’re playing murderers. They help foster an understanding of why Arquette’s Mitchell would make the choices she did. Del Toro plays Richard Matt as something of an artistic soul (he creates vivid paintings to trade for illegal contraband) that just took the wrong path. Dano’s Sweat comes across as an immature teen. Both actors, however, balance their charisma with the cold fact that they’re fully aware of their power over Mitchell, and they use sex to control her from behind bars. It’s something of an emotional ménage à trois.
Escape at Dannemora has much to offer in terms of a compelling limited series with a challenging narrative. But you should absolutely breathe in the fantastic performances like finely aged wine. Arquette deserves every award coming her way for this role. She’s completely fantastic, and kudos to her for embracing the challenging material with no vanity whatsoever. Dannemora excels because of her commitment to unabashedly portraying Joyce Mitchell as a damaged, tragic, and tragically deluded lovestruck soul. Hers is a performance for the ages.
Escape at Dannemora premieres tonight at 10pm ET on Showtime.