From prison, Joyce Mitchell has denounced Ben Stiller's true-crime miniseries, calling the director a "son-of-a-bitch liar" for the way he, writers Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin and actress Patricia Arquette portrayed her. For his part, Stiller has appealed to court records corroborating most of what the writers put down about "Tilly" Mitchell's relationship with the escaped murderers David Sweat (Paul Dano) and Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro). For her part, Mitchell's gift of free publicity to the series while it was still running only confirms the impression the series creates of a bitter, stupid woman. For those who missed it all, Mitchell ran a textile shop at the Clinton prison in Dannemora where Sweat and later Matt were given positions of responsibility that included, according to most accounts apart from hers, sexual relations with Mitchell. Bored with her oafish second husband (Eric Lange), Tilly begins to collaborate in Sweat and Matt's elaborate escape plan, smuggling crucial tools to them inside packages of hamburger indifferently conveyed to Matt by a lazy guard (David Mose). In Shawkshank fashion -- the tabloids gave Tilly the cruel nickname "Shawskank" -- Sweat cut his way into a network of catwalks and ventilation pipes finally leading out of the prison while Matt kept Mitchell interested, so to speak. The hope of all of them, if only for a moment, is to take a joyride to Mexico, but when Tilly chickens out at the last minute rather than poison her husband, the escapees are left to their own devices in an attempt to reach Canada through the tracts of wilderness surrounding the prison town.
This all played out quite a distance from where I live in New York State, but local news media covered it as a major story. I remember seeing the news of Sweat's capture, a few days after Matt's death, appearing on TVs in a restaurant as I was being treated to dinner on my birthday in 2015, so it was an odd sensation seeing those events recreated on film -- especially in something more ambitious than the typical true-crime docudrama. Stiller's series is an exercise in social realism like something by Zola, Dreiser or Frank Norris, an attempted unflinching gaze at mundane human depravity. It eschews sensationalism -- prison rape apparently isn't a worry for honor-block cons like Matt and Sweat -- but grows more unsettling, if not repulsive, as you see the depths to which characters sink. I regret to say that that includes the utterly cynical way in which Matt romances Tilly, played with fearless grotesquerie by Arquette as a would-be femme fatale, if not simply a sociopathic nympho in the body of a middle-aged, snaggle-toothed frump. Yet you can almost empathize with Tilly as she endures the pressure to meet quotas inside the prison-industrial complex and deals with the well-meaning imbecility of her husband Lyle. I thought Eric Lange's performance some over-the-top caricature and unfair on Stiller's part until I saw photos of the real man, but even if he looks like the world's stupidest man Lyle emerges as probably the most sympathetic of all the characters, guileless if not selfless in his love for Tilly. Pretty much everyone else on the show is lousy in some way or other, from Morse's bored guard who tries to be Matt's buddy at one moment only to lamely assert his autori-tah! in the next to another who has no apparent purpose except to bully the prisoners with words if not deeds.
As for the escapees, Paul Dano shows a side of himself as a performer I've never seen before. I'm used to seeing him play little weirdos going back to There Will Be Blood, but here, as David Sweat, he's the most level-headed, capable and pragmatic character despite obvious and sometimes self-defeating anger management issues. It's fascinating to see him play stooge to Del Toro's swaggering Matt, only to see the worm turn once they're out of prison and forced to rough it. Matt comes across as one of those "institutionalized" types who are cocks of the walk inside the walls, but have lost the ability to function outside. Richard Matt fancied himself an artist and was respected as one by Tilly and other guards, but his art is utterly impersonal and crass -- yet he keeps at it almost until the end, sketching a horse on the wall of an abandoned home that looks almost like a Lascaux cave painting. He has the artistic temperament in the negative sense of lacking nearly all common sense once he's free, as if the only way he can express his freedom is by getting drunk and making noise when Sweat desperately needs him to be quiet. If Matt's the dominant personality in prison, he becomes more like a Lennie to Sweat's George once they're out -- which is only fitting since Del Toro more closely resembles Lon Chaney Jr. now than he did in The Wolfman.
Seven episodes over nearly eight hours gives Stiller the opportunity to display a range of pictorial styles. The early chapters are all gritty realism and do a great job, thanks also to location shooting, immersing us in the drab world of Dannemora. For episode five, featuring the breakout, the director shifts styles suddenly, giving us action-movie style long takes and dramatic music as Sweat makes a dry run from his cell to the outside before summoning Matt to join him. The direction can't help but create a sense of exhilaration after we've followed the prisoners patiently through their labors, and that has to be why Stiller and the writers waited until the next episode to flash back and show us exactly how Sweat and Matt ended up in prison. Matt's crime is especially horrific as he tortures a former employer to find a hoard of money that doesn't exist, finally killing him more or less by accident and then brutally dismembering the body. An especially interesting choice was to wait until after that to tell how Tilly hooked up with Lyle. The story underscores further how much of a sap Lyle was while stripping away what sympathy we might have granted Tilly for sparing him in the previous episode, once we see how she set him up to take a beating as part of a plan to get custody of her son from the husband she dumped in Lyle's favor. Of course Tilly's schemes aren't as terrible as the crimes of Sweat and Matt, but the more valid conclusion to be drawn, Joyce Mitchell's protests to the contrary notwithstanding, is that she was as ruthlessly selfish as the two murderers. That penultimate episode probably was the most harrowing hour of TV I saw in all of 2018, and Escape at Dannemora as a whole was one of the best TV programs of that now-departed year.