At one point in Escape at Dannemora, Showtime’s new miniseries set inside a maximum security state prison, David Sweat (Paul Dano) reclines in his cell reading Call of the Wild. The book is an obvious choice for an inmate, a man shackled by regiment and regulation, compelled to suppress his primordial instincts. Yet for Sweat and his savvy prison ally Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro), the wild won’t stop calling. And they know that, if they’re smart about it, their animal urges—for sex, power, freedom—don’t have to be stymied. They can be stoked ablaze.
Directed by Ben Stiller, the seven-part series—premiering Nov. 18 on Showtime—is a taut, classy drama that follows Sweat and Matt, both serving life sentences, as they concoct and execute a grand ploy to break free. Like many worthy movies and shows directed by veteran actors, Escape at Dannemora thrives on its performances; the characters here, based on real people from the true-life 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility escape, are alive in ways not often achieved onscreen. We don’t see anything of Sweat or Matt’s backstories or know what they did to earn their sentences (Matt’s nickname is “Chainsaw,” which gives us an idea), but Stiller is so attuned to their minutiae of emotion—every flicker of desire, rage, fear—that they feel more real than acted.
This is particularly true with the chief reason to watch the show: Patricia Arquette, whose ability to disappear into pitiful prison worker Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell belongs among the great transformational roles of recent memory. This isn’t only a comment upon physicality, though Arquette does look different than usual: her teeth are uneven, her skin raw, her hair brittle and grubby. But actresses are always applauded for “unattractive” roles, and here Arquette’s metamorphosis is more than her looks. It’s her presence—her hunch; her slow, waddling walk; her whiny, slurred speech; her zero-reaction-time snappy responses whenever her meek husband opens his mouth. She’s a frightfully miserable woman, and the only pleasure in her life derives from the morsels of attention she receives from Sweat and Matt. Still, when her neediness is gratified, she lights up as if illuminated from within.
We open with Tilly in an interrogation room, her back to the camera. She’s whimpering softly, unable or unwilling to answer the questions posed by the primped inspector-general (Bonnie Hunt) across the table. “Did you have sex with these two inmates?” the official presses, adding, “I get it. Somebody attractive pays attention to me, I like it. It’s only human nature.” Tilly quivers. Like Sweat and Matt, Tilly is a prisoner, enchained by gloom and disgust for her life. When an opportunity for escape arrived, she followed her urges.
From there, we cut back to months before the escape. In rural Dannemora, New York, Clinton Correctional Facility stands as a bleak monolith where Tilly oversees the inmate tailor shop. During work hours, she plays hip hop and rock—top 40 tunes that Stiller often carries over as non-diegetic pump-up music overlaying the action. Tilly’s best worker is Sweat, with whom she trades treats and notes and, more privately, gruff sex in a back storeroom. But people are beginning to catch on to Tilly’s favoritism, and Sweat is soon removed from her supervision. It’s then that Matt, big man on prison campus who’s all dark shades and slicked hair, steps in, rescuing Tilly from her anguish with an eye toward what she can provide him in return.
In 1979’s Escape from Alcatraz, Clint Eastwood spends much of the movie covertly chipping away at stone with a nail clipper, his fixation on being free conveyed through the tiniest of maneuvers. Escape at Dannemora has lots of this too: the play-by-play cell block-chiseling and brick wall-smashing and tunnel-squeezing that the real jail-breakers miraculously accomplished. “This is the first time in 12 years nobody knows where you are,” Matt says, excitedly, to Sweat one night while they’re sneaking through the prison underbelly, working on their route to the outside. But Stiller locates the majority of the series’ action, and its suspense, in the sequences where everyone does know where Matt and Sweat are: during the day, surrounded by guards and prisoners, when the pair must exercise their flair for lying, scheming and manipulation.
Most of the one-hour episodes burn slowly and steadily, with several montage sequences interspersed. And once you’re a-ways in, it begins to feel as if the series could’ve played just as well (or better) as a two-hour film than a seven-hour event. In real life, the jail-breakers were able to pave a pretty flawless runaway route—the escape wouldn’t have worked otherwise—and it’s no easy feat to keep the energy and tension up for a story with a lot of built-in monotony and no surprise ending. Thankfully, del Toro, Dano and Arquette come into play here, three actors who can take terrible people—drab, wicked, amoral; people from whom you’re tempted to look away—and make them magnetic.