When we meet Joyce Mitchell, she’s at a low moment, being questioned about her role in a prison breakout. She’s combative, bristling and insistent on being called by her nickname, Tilly, and evidently dissembling under the gaze of the state’s inspector general (Bonnie Hunt). When we shift back in time to see how her troubles began, there’s no discontinuity or rupture; the character we’ve met under duress lives her life in a state of simmering rage. It’s a credit to Patricia Arquette’s performance, and to “Escape at Dannemora,” that Tilly feels as credible as the real person she is; Arquette makes “Dannemora” worth sticking with even as the show’s running time grows punishing.
The Dannemora breakout — the 2015 escape of two inmates from a maximum-security facility in New York in which the actual Tilly Mitchell was convicted for her role — is elementally fascinating. Its details, like the hacksaw blades she hides in frozen hamburger, are bizarre, and there are many jagged angles on which the show’s writers can hang bits of creative license. That Tilly, who oversaw a prison tailoring shop, had a sexual relationship with the two escapees is vivid enough; watching her push the meek David Sweat (Paul Dano) through jarringly violent sex in a closet tells us much about her appetites and the absences in her life.
As Tilly, Arquette is willing to risk real strangeness; she joins Amy Adams in “Sharp Objects” and Emma Stone in “Maniac” as the latest in a banner year for actresses taking their limited series on freaked-out joyrides. Arquette, so luminous in “Boyhood,” here is shrunken within her skin; she spits resentment through a thick, “Fargo”-esque accent. It tends to land on her husband (Eric Lange), a sweet and dim fellow who, we later learn, had once represented an exciting escape hatch from a failing relationship. A woman whose desire to feel deeply outstrips her surroundings, Tilly finds herself anew in liaisons with Sweat and Richard Matt (Benicio Del Toro), a prisoner capable both of creating heartbreaking paintings and of imbuing a simple interaction with menace.
For their part, though, Dano and Del Toro give strong but familiar performances. In perhaps an inadvertent commentary on the monotony of life behind bars, neither one surprises. That they don’t burn as brightly as Tilly is the point; they just want to break out, while her desire for an overhauled life — possibly with them, certainly without her husband — is harder, somehow, to fulfill. As their escape crumbles, with hacking their way out of prison an easier accomplishment than staying hidden from an extensive manhunt, they’re merely disappointed. But Tilly’s inability to finish the job, due to some extant, regrettable loyalty to her husband, leaves her bereft.
Ben Stiller’s generally strong direction threatens, on occasion, to turn Tilly into caricature. There are a few too many lingering close-ups that seem at times almost mocking, as though searching for complexity within her simple psyche — or hairpin turns of emotionality that a lesser actress would convey as straight hysteria. But Arquette makes sense of it all, and rescues her character.
She also makes the best case for the existence of “Dannemora.” With a still-expanding TV landscape demanding more content, real-life crime stories provide networks with ideal source material, rich in complications of psychology and plot. But unlike, say, recent FX miniseries about O.J. Simpson and Andrew Cunanan, the Dannemora saga does not immediately suggest political resonance. There would be no clear second beat beyond the initial recognition of the incident’s telegenic oddity without Arquette. When she is on-screen, the show becomes about a woman denied the opportunity to live fully and freely, someone who’s never had the pleasure of being understood and so cannot understand herself. The story falls short of urgent relevance, and it didn’t need to be told over seven hours. But Arquette will keep you rapt. She is the show’s weapon as much as hacksaws frozen in meat were Matt and Sweat’s — the finely honed tool, glinting from a chilly hiding place.
Executive producers: Ben Stiller, Brett Johnson, Michael Tolkin, Michael De Luca, Bryan Zuriff, Nicholas Weinstock, Bill Carraro