Not every story needs to be a TV series, and Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora offers further proof. Based on a real-life 2015 incident in the uppermost county of upstate New York, it’s about a prison employee (Patricia Arquette) who gets embroiled in sexual relationships with two convicted murderers (Paul Dano and Benicio del Toro) and helps them both dig their way out. Much of the eight-part series, which premieres on Sunday, is about the conditions, atmosphere, and rituals of the prison, and the psychological damage they inflict on people who are stuck there as inmates or employees; it’s a repetitious subject, though astutely observed, making the same points with different details.
Given the tight focus on the main trio — with a few detours into the lives of secondary characters, such as the heroine’s sad sack husband played by Eric Lange, and a too-chummy prison guard played by David Morse — it’s hard to see why this story absolutely needed to run eight hours. The first hour is scene-setting, moseying toward introduction of the main love triangle. The idea of escape doesn’t enter the story until the end of the second episode. Nevertheless, the component parts of Dannemora are solid, and often more than that. And all told, the series represents some of the best work that Arquette, Dano, Del Toro, Morse, and director Ben Stiller (playing it absolutely straight behind the camera, for the first time) have ever done.
As prison shop manager Joyce “Tilly” Tillman, who’s entangled with David Sweat (Dano) and Richard Matt (Del Toro), she’s playing the sort of unglamorous yet multidimensional middle-aged woman that Frances McDormand specializes in. The costume and makeup department has frumped her to the gills, and Stiller often photographs her in silent, tight closeups that let you feel the character’s anxiety and resentment even as she remains a mystery to herself. From Arquette’s Marlon Brando-level “here comes the movie star” entrance — a flashback interview with a lawyer (Bonnie Hunt) that takes its sweet time revealing the heroine’s face — through Tilly’s many defiant expressions of lust for Sweat and depressed resentment of her husband (including an argument during an otherwise empty film screening at a historical museum that serves up Mike Leigh–level cringey misery), this is a tour-de-force performance. It makes a strong impression even when the script, credited to Brett Johnson, Michael Tolkin, and Jerry Stahl, can’t seem to figure out what motivates Tilly aside from a generalized dissatisfaction.
Sweat and Matt are easier to get a handle on. They’re charismatic but limited men who have never taken responsibility for the crimes that put them in prison (their own protestations aside). They think they’re entitled to a fresh start, and they want out, the sooner the better. Dano has never played a character as rough-edged and unabashedly working class as Sweat before, and he captures the character’s macho self-image and occasionally ostentatious meanness, as well as the observant qualities that apparently drew Tilly to him.
Del Toro walks off with the show by seeming not to do anything in particular, even though every move, glance, and silent pause was doubtless precisely calibrated to achieve a specific effect. He’s part of a noble lineage of character actors who seem to have been plucked from real life and planted in front of the camera for the first time, where they immediately prove themselves as natural born movie stars, even though you’ve been watching them for decades and know damn well that they’re as formally trained as anyone. Watch him in the scene where he and Morse join forces to intimidate a younger inmate who has interrupted a conversation between them because he’s full of himself and thinks he’s entitled to their time. The sidelong glance that Del Toro gives the younger man is the sort of look that Robert Mitchum’s characters used to give to cocky upstarts in the 1970s: It’s as if he resents not just the overconfidence and thoughtless display of disrespect, but the fact that beating the piss out of this kid would prevent him from taking the nap he’s been looking forward to all day. (Del Toro is also believable as a fine artist, which the real-life Matt also was.)
Stiller directs the entire series in CinemaScope format — the wide, narrow aspect ratio employed on Master of None, approximately 2.4 to 1 — which can seem like a lazy signifier of “cinema” or “more than TV” when filmmakers don’t use it properly. But Stiller and cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagne use it exceptionally well here. The wide frame amplifies the sense that all these characters are figuratively as well as literally trapped, and there are many striking compositions that use bars, windows, and the edge of door frames to create a mosaic effect. The compositions make you even more keenly aware of how prison forces a lot of disparate, often dangerous people into close proximity, while simultaneously separating them, amplifying their real and perceived differences, and degrading them at every turn.
Having already criticized the series for being longer than it needed to be, I should acknowledge that the airiness of the storytelling gets across a point that more compact and propulsive prison stories often avoid: Beyond all the bigger, more obvious reasons to loathe it, incarceration also sucks because it’s repetitious and boring. It’s the sheer ordinariness of misery that grinds the spirit down, and makes the likelihood of getting dog-bitten, brutalized, or shot seem insignificant compared to the dream of being able to walk around in daylight any time you please. Tilly is also dealing with that, too, in her own way: The more we learn about her past, the more we realize that she’s also an escape artist of sorts, getting dissatisfied by her lot in life and then smashing it to try something else. In the end, what unites the key players in this drama is the sense that, at some point, they looked around and thought, I need something better than this.