Adapted from the true-crime memoir “In With The Devil: A Fallen Hero, A Serial Killer, and A Dangerous Bargain for Redemption” by James Keene and Hillel Levin, Black Bird is a run-of-the-mill crime tale told by experts in the genre.
Taron Egerton (Kingsman, Robin Hood) plays the real-life Jimmy Keene, a son of a decorated police officer (Ray Liotta) and high school football hero. He is sentenced to 10 years in a minimum-security prison for drug dealing. Unusually, he is given a choice by the authorities— to enter a maximum-security prison for the criminally insane and befriend suspected serial killer Larry Hall (Richard Jewell’s Paul Walter Hauser) or serve his complete sentence with no parole.
Keene chooses to work with the FBI, heading into a maximum-security prison with one goal: to get a confession. Keene uses his charms to try to encourage Hall to reveal where the bodies of several young girls have been buried, but he must get it before Hall’s appeal goes through. Both Keene and the audience have to determine if Hall is a killer or just a fantasist.
Hall latches onto Keene; he is the high school hero he could only dream of being friends with. As Hall begins to trust Jimmy, he begins to reveal more about his true personality. He isn’t envious of Jimmy’s promiscuity and popularity with the ladies; he is repulsed by modern life. His love of Civil War re-enactment goes further than putting on a costume and shooting a musket in a field.
Egerton, whose star is rising after Rocketman, feels comfortable in the role of a cocky, all-American Jimmy. He swaggers around the jail looking like a 1950s heartthrob, his blue eyes ice-cold when talking to Hall. He delivers precisely the right amount of charm to make you believe he could have been assigned the task and could have built Hall’s trust. Egerton is one of the most talented young actors working in Hollywood, and Black Bird showcases that. It will do his natural talents a disservice if he gets locked in a big blockbuster contract rather than sticking to strong scripts like Black Bird.
Hauser is chillingly creepy as Larry Hall. He has been convicted for abducting and killing a fifteen-year-old but is suspected of killing nineteen other young women. A civil war re-enactment aficionado, he is a soft-spoken loner. He truly believes in his innocence, justifying unforgivable actions. Hauser is an acting masterclass in understated psychopathy reminiscent of Hopkin’s Hannibal Lecter. Your skin will crawl from his monologues alone, his whole physicality unnerving.
Despite an engaging lead duo, the other characters feel underwritten. The detectives played by Greg Kinnear andSepideh Moafi are cardboard cut-outs, mooching around between scenes and delivering the exposition. It especially feels like a waste of Kinnear’s talents. The fellow prisoners are also forgettable characters that are wallpaper to Jimmy and Larry’s story.
Liotta’s last television role before passing away in his sleep on May 26, at the age of 67, as Big Jim Keene is a testament to how he will be missed from our screens. The performance is a complicated mix of tough ex-cop and ailing father to a locked-up son. The role was written for the Emmy Award-winning actor, who delivers a masterclass with limited screentime.
The six-episode original limited series from executive producer Dennis Lehane doesn’t cover new ground in the crime drama, but it is elevated by intelligent writing and fantastic performances from the lead duo. The fact they use an undercover criminal over an undercover cop is the only plot thread that stands out in a somewhat predictable narrative. Lehane, who penned the novels Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island and Mystic River was based on, feels like a safe pair of hands in this genre. A writer on The Wire, Boardwalk Empire and Mr. Mercedes, and later writing The Drop, Lehane clearly understands how to write engaging characters that will keep you coming back, even if the ending is no surprise.
The riches to rags backstory Keene explored in his book is largely ignored in favour of the crime narrative. Jimmy was rubbing shoulders with stars, living in a large bachelor pad with a collection of sportscars by his 20s is shown in just one episode. This choice also makes Jimmy a little more likable, acting as the eyes and ears of the audience.
Black Bird takes a paint-by-number thriller to a prestige drama level. While it works as a character study, there isn’t a considerable amount of mystery nor a huge amount of crime. Fans of the genre may be left disappointed by the more psychological thriller nature of the show, choosing long conversations in jail cells over detective work. Egerton and Hauser are at the top of their game in this psychological cat and mouse story crafted by a master of the genre.
Black Bird begins streaming on Apple TV+ on July 8
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy