Lurid, sordid, sensational — it all means the same thing anymore, in the era of fast-traveling viral news and video clips.
Remember the one about the lady who worked at the maximum-security prison in New York? You know — she was having sex with two convicted murderers and provided them with tools to help them escape? It was all over the news, for a bit, in the summer of 2015: helicopters and search dogs and shootouts. Did you see what her husband said to the reporters? Did you click on it? Did you think about it? And after they caught the escapees (killing one, wounding the other) and sent her to prison, did you ever think about it again?
It’s in that particular aftermath — in the wake of certain irresistible and unseemly events — that scripted television steps in to dramatize. Such events used to become those made-for-TV movies of yore, which mainly provided an opportunity for stars of other network hits to spread their wings and try more demanding and dirtier roles (in wigs and other rough guises, their faces speckled with cosmetic bruises). Later, “Law & Order” swooped in and more quickly seized real headlines for the procedural cut-and-dry. Of late, Ryan Murphy saw opportunities to make both broad and specific thematic statements about the O.J. Simpson trial and the murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace.
Most true-crime dramatizations are just that — an exercise in imposing a saucier narrative on top of the transcripts, TV’s version of rubbernecking. You forget about them almost as soon as you’ve watched them.
Once in a great while, however, viewers get a chance to watch something as magnificently disturbing as Showtime’s “Escape at Dannemora,” a thoroughly gripping, seven-part miniseries that succeeds on little more than its commitment to realism, rather than launching a manhunt for deeper meanings.
Created by Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin and directed with unflinching perspective by Ben Stiller (yes, the very one), “Escape at Dannemora” is a master work of true-crime dramatization, remarkable in that it feels true in a way that transcends the record of what happened. Much of the miniseries relies on imagination — elaborating from testimony and then getting inside its characters’ conversations and thoughts — yet it never once seems like a standard Hollywood adaptation. It is direct, relentless and almost exquisitely plain.
In a cultural moment where we talk a lot about empathy, “Escape at Dannemora” metes it out in only very small doses. Its main characters are bad people, behaving badly, and when the series stops to give them shape, it is without a twist of pity or urge to comprehend their motivations or personal shortcomings. Everything you need to know is right in front of your face.
That’s probably why Patricia Arquette’s astounding portrayal of prison employee Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell succeeds by being far more pathetic than sympathetic. In a sublime study of gradual depravation, Arquette transforms into a deeply unmotivated prison employee who is hardened by her own unhappiness, succumbing to both desire and resentment. It’s never a pretty picture. Stuck in a lousy job and what she perceives to be a loveless marriage, 51-year-old Tilly drags out of bed each morning and rides with her lunkheaded husband, Lyle (Eric Lange, playing the part with a wicked, mouth-breathing cluelessness), to the Clinton Correctional Facility (a.k.a. Dannemora), a vast, Shawshankian men’s prison compound near the Canadian border.
Here, Tilly supervises a group of felons who work in the tailor shop for 37 cents an hour, chronically failing to meet the quota on uniform pants they’re supposed to be sewing on contract. Part of the lethargy may have something to do with Tilly’s frequent disappearances into the storeroom to have sex with David Sweat (Paul Dano), a 34-year-old inmate convicted of killing a police officer. Dano, who excels at playing meek-mannered creeps, brings a steady and almost feral quality to the role, succumbing to Tilly’s twisted mix of mothering role play. There’s nothing sexy or romantic about their not-so-secret rutting (another sign that this is no ordinary cable production), yet Tilly is especially aggrieved when the guards transfer David out of her shop.
In slithers a manipulative snake, Richard Matt (Benicio Del Toro), a particularly remorseless killer and David’s next-cell neighbor, who keeps whispering his plan to dig out of Dannemora, first by using the man-sized vents behind their beds to crawl a catwalk that runs behind the cellblock’s walls. Climbing down to the prison’s bowels, they intend to chip through walls to a steampipe that runs out past the perimeter wall, where they pop up through a manhole and escape.
Richard talks David into the hard work — chiseling away at the escape path each night while everyone sleeps — while he takes up his own sexual relationship with Tilly in the tailor shop, convincing her that she can run off with the two men, where they’ll all start a new life in Mexico. Without belaboring it, “Escape at Dannemora” excels at subtly portraying the common thread between Tilly and the prisoners. She wants out of this place just as badly as they do.
Plotwise, there’s little to spoil here for viewers who remember the news of the breakout, yet once Richard and David make their attempt, “Escape at Dannemora” necessarily amps up the excitement of the pursuit, without cashing in to become a full-on fugitive thriller. Even in their audacious sprint for freedom, the two men make a deplorable pair, entirely deserving of the arduous fates that await them.
In other words, this at last is the prison-breakout movie for those of us who are disinclined to root for the escapees — and it’s here where Del Toro’s occasionally overcooked take on Richard begins to justify itself, as his tough exterior melts and he finds himself helpless (and eventually quite drunk) in the woods.
It’s really Arquette and Dano who run away with the series — backed by a fantastic supporting cast that includes David Morse as a corrupt prison guard and Bonnie Hunt as the state’s inspector general, who can hardly believe the level of neglect she discovers once the fugitives are front-page news and bad PR for her boss, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (Michael Imperioli).
Throughout, “Escape at Dannemora” has only this to tell us: A lot of people are no damn good and eventually get what they deserve. That may seem like a downer of a takeaway, but in the world we live in, it’s also a crucial reminder.
Escape at Dannemora (65 minutes, first of seven parts) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.