“Escape at Dannemora,” a new seven-part miniseries about the famous 2015 prison break in upstate New York, introduces Patricia Arquette as Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell with a wonderfully slow reveal. While she’s being interviewed by the inspector general about her complicity in the escape of two convicted murderers, the camera circles oh-so gradually behind her, showing only the back of her thin blond hair and her black-and-white jailbird outfit. We hear her voice, whiny, teary, edgy, and full of denial as she reticently answers questions, but there’s no face.
When we finally do see her, when director Ben Stiller’s deliberate camera meets her straight on, we see Arquette utterly transformed. And from that point on, as the story flashes back to the months before the escape, Arquette is Tilly, and she makes all of Tilly’s bad decisions — starting with her sexual encounters with convict David Sweat in the back of the prison tailor shop — comprehensible. We see Tilly’s irritable despair about her docile husband, her blinding need to feel desirable, and her gloom over a blue-collar life of hard weather and poverty, all in Arquette’s bearing. It’s as if she has been hit with the pathos stick, as the sour Tilly enters the prison each day like a prisoner dreaming of freedom.
Arquette is phenomenal, and so are the two men who star with her in “Escape at Dannemora,” which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. Benicio del Toro is all stealth menace as Richard Matt, the prisoner who planned the break. He smiles, he frowns, it doesn’t matter because we can see the unchanging amorality glinting in his eyes. He, too, has sex with Tilly, but he has a long con in mind, unlike the more boyish Sweat, who’s just trying to survive prison. Matt is the puppeteer, smugly combing his hair in public like a 1950s greaser, and he knows how to manipulate Tilly’s unhappiness for his own gain. At one point, aware that Tilly is missing Sweat, he wears one of Sweat’s undershirts during an assignation to subliminally seduce her. As Sweat, Paul Dano is quiet and smart but — his tragic flaw — explosive, as he keeps making his life in prison more miserable with his temper.
The good news is that the drama built around these three rich performances is rock solid, as it tells the story step by step, with more specificity than most TV series based on real events. The look is remarkably authentic, and the pacing never speeds up for artificial sequences, just to keep us from feeling the desolation. Filmed in Dannemora, N.Y., and in the actual correctional facility where the break occurred, the miniseries captures the drab, cold atmosphere outside the prison, which Matt gazes at longingly, as well as the drab, cold atmosphere inside the prison, with its narrow halls and green bars. It’s hard to shake the mood of “Dannemora,” as we watch each step of the escape enacted before the 23-day manhunt that fills the last episode.
Written by co-creators Michael Tolkin (“The Player”) and Brett Johnson (“Ray Donovan”), as well as Jerry Stahl, the script stays focused on the specifics of each of these twisted characters. There is some material that drags in the middle, as the men begin to explore the prison’s venting system; in their unwillingness to make the miniseries an incident-crammed story like the TV series “Prison Break,” Stiller and the writers get a little carried away with the dull work these men had to perform before they escaped. But still, the acting carries us through, as if we’re under a dark spell.
ESCAPE AT DANNEMORA
Starring: Patricia Arquette, Paul Dano, Benicio del Toro, David Morse, Eric Lange, Bonnie Hunt, Michael Imperioli
On: Showtime, Sunday at 10 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.