It was a prison escape that held the nation in thrall. On June 6, 2015, Richard Matt and David Sweat, two inmates from an upstate New York prison, escaped through a tunnel in a narrative similar to the film The Shawshank Redemption. What made the story even more riveting were the circumstances that led to their escape: a male prison guard and a female supervisor at the tailor shop where Matt and Sweat worked had smuggled in tools to help the convicts make their escape. The guard, Gene Palmer, granted special favors to Matt, a talented amateur artist, in exchange for paintings. The supervisor, Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell, a frumpy, middle-aged, married woman, was romantically entangled with both prisoners. It was a real-life soap opera that redefined sleaziness and became the basis of Escape at Dannemora, a seven-episode miniseries recently on Showtime.
Directed and executive produced by Ben Stiller and starring two Oscar-winners — Patricia Arquette and Benicio del Toro — as Mitchell and Matt, and with Paul Dano (currently in True West on Broadway) as Sweat, Escape at Dannemora gives viewers an honest depiction of what daily prison life must be like, with its monotonous regimentation and banality of routine offset by periodic bursts of random violence. With each camera shot zooming into the rabbit warren of cells occupied by Matt and Sweat, you can feel the claustrophobia that each man must be experiencing, their desire for freedom festering within.
Filmed near the actual prison venue, Escape at Dannemora juxtaposes the bleak harshness of upstate New York winters with the drab, provincial lives of townies like Arquette’s Mitchell, who uses illicit sex to add excitement to her colorless existence, a kind of walking death. If Mitchell wasn’t such a singularly grating, profoundly unlikable character, bereft of redeemable qualities, you could understand, in a perverse way, how desperation and boredom might make someone suspend her judgement and get involved with criminals like Matt and Sweat. But Arquette’s Mitchell is nearly as rotten as her inmate lovers.
Other than the extended length of Escape at Dannemora — which could have been a two-hour movie or condensed into four episodes from seven — Arquette’s excessively mannered performance is the most problematic aspect of this production, her recent inexplicable win at the Golden Globe Awards notwithstanding. With her facial palette vacillating between squinting and scowling, a vocal range confined to nasal whining, and line readings steeped in fulsome self-pity without nuance, Arquette treads into caricature territory from the start. She also wears dental prosthetics because doesn’t anyone who is lower- or working class have bad teeth? Sigh.
For such an intelligent, sensitive actress, one with a rich body of work, Arquette’s bizarre performance in Escape at Dannemora is as baffling to behold as it is mind-boggling. It’s like she decided to cast a judgment on Mitchell rather than slip effortlessly into her skin, a trap that befalls neophyte actors, not consummate and celebrated professionals, and Arquette should have known better. Yes, Mitchell is archetypal white trash, a bad wife, an indifferent mother, and the script includes these elements. But there’s a grotesque obviousness to Arquette’s work. It exudes a blatant, ugly misogyny that makes me feel that Stiller — the erstwhile comedy meister — might be behind Arquette’s weird acting choices.
I watched an old Today Show interview on YouTube between the real-life Mitchell and Matt Lauer shortly after Mitchell’s arrest. Although she maintained her innocence, denying affairs with Matt and Sweat, I did not see a squint, hear a nasal whine or notice any other facial tic, nor did I see missing teeth or a snaggletooth. Maybe she visited the prison dentist. I only saw a pathetic, normal woman who is probably a pathological liar with a questionable moral compass. I did not see a cartoon.
Compare Arquette’s over-the-top histrionics with the restrained, immaculate performances of del Toro and Dano. Neither character is a paragon of virtue — far from it. The real-life Matt was a killer, serving a life sentence after the 1997 murder of an elderly ex-boss. He dispatched and dismembered the man, tossing his body parts into a river after failing to extort money from him. On July 4, 2002, Sweat shot and then drove over the body of a sheriff who found him and his cousin stealing fireworks. Both men confessed to their crimes and became lifers at the Clinton Correctional Facility. Del Toro and Dano ground their performances with an authenticity and truth that makes you understand their motives, even as viewers learn through flashbacks that both characters are unregenerate monsters who deserved their punishments. How is it that Stiller didn’t steer them to make the same misguided choices that marred Arquette’s performance?
Here’s another note to Stiller: Most evildoers don’t view themselves as evil. Misunderstood, yes, but never depraved. In their mindset, it’s society’s fault that they’re not appreciated and valued for the truly great human beings and geniuses that they are. Another thing that binds sociopaths is a dearth of accountability. So I find it curious that, unlike Arquette, none of the male actors in Escape at Dannemora (including the underrated character actor David Morse as the prison guard who befriends Matt) give performances that degenerate into self-conscious parody. No villainous clichés; no bulging eyes. No wicked, hyena-like cackling.
If there’s an actor who deserves an award for his performance in this series, it’s del Toro. He’s both menacing and magnetic. He puts slick moves on Arquette’s Mitchell, deploying honeyed words and dubious charm to get her to do his bidding, and she’s only too happy to comply. It’s a reprieve from her dull marriage to her sad-sack, hopelessly loyal husband, Lyle (Eric Lange), another prison employee.
Being a crappy person is not a crime. Other than her stupidity, no doubt galvanized by a carnal adrenaline rush, Mitchell didn’t murder anyone, unlike her prison paramours. So why does the story portray Mitchell as a gross caricature, but not Matt or Sweat? I’ll tell you why. Because in a world that conflates youth, beauty and thinness with sexual viability, Mitchell is a flagrant deviation. She’s unattractive, overweight and dowdy — with an active libido. And apparently we cannot tolerate that: how dare any woman who looks like Mitchell have the temerity to have and to enjoy sex, even if it’s with convicted murderers? No: she must bear the brunt of our societal scorn; we must slut-shame her; we must punish her with a characterization that makes Mitchell less sympathetic than Matt and Sweat. If that doesn’t reek of misogyny and ageism, I don’t know what does.