“Black Bird” Review: Make friends with a killer
“Black Bird”, a new miniseries on Apple TV + (premiere Friday) that dramatizes a scary Midwest’s true crime story from the 1990s, has some significant names attached to it. It was developed for television by the leading crime writer Dennis Lehane (“The Wire”, “Mr. Mercedes”). Its nominal star, Taron Egerton (“Rocketman”), is a candidate to become Marvel’s next Wolverine. And in a minor role, it has one of the last performances of Ray Liotta, who died in May.
But from the moment Paul Walter Hauser appears on screen as Larry Hall, a convicted kidnapper suspected of being a serial killer, everything else about “Black Bird” disappears into the background. In “Richard Jewell,” Hauser was captivating as a darling whose eccentricity obscured his intelligence and heroism. Here he turns the equation by using his extraordinary empathy and his peculiar rhythms and shadows to draw us helplessly into the path of a deceptively mild character whose violent psychopathy bubbles just below the surface.
Lehane, who wrote or co-wrote five of the six episodes, worked from a 2010 memoir, “In With the Devil,” by James Keene and Hillel Levin. Egerton plays Keene, a former high school football star who, when jailed for drug trafficking, was offered a verdict: His sentence would be overturned if he befriended Hall in federal prison and retrieved information that would help defeat Hall’s appeal of his conviction for kidnapping a teenage girl, an appeal he seemed to win.
Focusing the story on Keene (Egerton is first listed among the show’s 11 executive producers) divides the narrative in a way that does the show no favors. On the one hand – and you can imagine that this was what attracted Lehane to the material – there is a somewhat atypical prison house drama, where Keene has to get to Hall before Keene’s status as an undercover sneak is discovered and he is killed. In this action, Keene joins a curious guard (Joe Williamson), becomes careful friends with the gangster Vincent Gigante (Tony Amendola) and tries to reassure his hectic ex-police father (Liotta).
On the other hand, there is the more conventional true crime story of Larry Hall, whose background as a gravedigger and a caretaker could help explain why he was never convicted of any of the many murders he was suspected of, and why none of the bodies are found. (He has even confessed to several murders over time, but has always withdrawn.)
Hall’s story is expressed in retrospect to his awful childhood, and in the scenes of the frustrating investigation carried out by an irreconcilable local police officer (Greg Kinnear) and an FBI agent (Sepideh Moafi). But it is mostly conveyed in the prison meetings between Hall and Keene, and Hauser is so good in these scenes – so scary and strangely funny, so believable and completely present – that everything else in the series begins to feel pale and signed in comparison. When Hauser is not on screen, you are more likely to notice how tight and sincere Egerton’s behavior is and how little he and Liotta are able to do with their shallowly drawn characters.
The not-so-revealing ideas embedded in the story are that Keene, the slick, pretty high school jock, attracts Hall because he is what Hall always wanted to be, and that learning about Hall’s life and being drawn in in his mind- force Keene to reconsider his own attitudes and privileges. But the inequality in the performances erases all the emotional lines. When a prison therapist says that Keene is “very charismatic”, you may think that no, it is Hall who is charismatic (and wonders why Hall does not see through Keene immediately). It is certainly on purpose that Hausers Hall is a seductive character, but Lehane probably did not intend that our interest, and even our sympathy, should tilt so completely in his direction.
Despite the imbalance in the dramatic weight, “Black Bird” is largely engaging – Hauser is much on screen, and the production has a low-key quality, with occasional expressionist elements, reminiscent of David Fincher’s crime stories. It’s at its best in the fourth episode, directed by Jim McKay (“Our Song”): Egerton is more relaxed, and Hauser even sharper than usual, and their scenes together have an almost sexual charge. And McKay’s depictions of a prison uprising and the subsequent clean-up, closely monitored by Hall, are among the series’ best moments.
“Black Bird” closes with a view out of a plane window of the irregular grid in the Midwest’s farmland, under which lie the undiscovered bodies of the women who may have been Hall’s victims. We know that Hall has recreated his childhood there as an all-American idyll – “What a world it was, James, even living in a cemetery” – and Hauser, confusing and magical, makes us feel both the horror and the wonder of the. delusion.