‘Black Bird’ Review – The Hollywood Reporter
Disclaimer: No matter what you may have collected from film and television, given the opportunity to sit in a sterile room facing a serial killer, the chances are very slim that you would be able to get him to share intimate details about his crimes and subtextual lessons about life.
Just because you see things done in script form does not mean that you can do them in real life, and just because something was done in real life does not mean that it will be transferred credibly to script form. Oh, and just because something real is not credibly transferred to script form, does not necessarily mean that the result will be bad.
The bottom line
A well-known conceit elevated by great achievements.
Dennis Lehane’s new six-part drama, Blackbirdis based on James Keene’s memoirs I With the Devil: A Fallen Hero, a Serial Killer, and a Dangerous Bargain for Redemption. Despite its true criminality, the Apple TV + adaptation is never particularly authentic or compelling on any actual level. However, it is thoroughly disturbing and rooted in exceptional performances by Paul Walter Hauser, Taron Egerton and Ray Liotta, who together more than compensate for countless flaws with structure and focus.
Our hero is Jimmy Keene (Egerton), a once high school soccer star who became a drug dealer. After a bust that also produces illegal firearms, Jimmy is sentenced to 10 years in prison, much to the annoyance of his ex-police father (Liotta).
Because he’s confident, hunky and a good listener, Jimmy gets an offer from a nice FBI agent (Sepideh Moafis Lauren). An accused serial killer (Hauser’s Larry Hall) can be appealed if someone does not pull a fuller confession out of him. “Not for all the fucking money in the world,” Jimmy says when it is suggested that he give up his reasonably well-groomed status in reasonably casual trousers to move to another prison with maximum security and go undercover to befriend a guy if body numbers can count in the dozens. Lauren emphasizes that he would do it for his freedom, which means a lot after Jimmy’s father suffered a severe stroke.
A game of humorous cat-and-mouse follows, given extra depth by expanding a story that could easily have been told in feature film length. Part of that expansion includes regular intercutting into flashbacks with Greg Kinnear as Brian Miller, one of the original investigators who put Larry away. The flashbacks give us an introduction to Larry, whose pathology includes sexual perversion, extreme fatherhood issues, and devotion to military reenacting. This background information is broadcast in the first two episodes. Subsequent flashbacks, which suppress the intensity of the Jimmy / Larry story at each point, are probably there to remind us that the case involved legitimate police work.
Else, Blackbird would play exclusively as a love letter to Jimmy, so utterly contemptuous of its focus character that it borders on parody. He is irresistible to both men and women, so brilliant that he turns porn trading into a lucrative prison business, previously so good at football that everyone continues to reflect on how good he was at football. Jimmy, who rarely goes more than 15 or 20 minutes in an episode without doing topless push-ups and sit-ups, is such a force of nature that it seems that every institution he goes to tailors his obligatory uniforms to his physique. No matter how uncomfortable the other residents look, Jimmy is ready to take the runway.
It’s a contest to see which aspect of Jimmy’s story – his hollow bow of redemption or his glorious pas de deux with Larry – is the least convincing, though that’s probably what requires his strict FBI action to resist flirting. him. So even though Brian Miller (a real person and not, as I first assumed, a composer) serves no functional narrative purpose in this miniseries and is not written in any way that could explain how the series got an actor of Kinnear’s relative status, the alternative may have been an ego-driven Jimmy Keene monologue, as an unholy mix of Spalding Gray and Jersey Shore.
I apologize for the nonsense in what makes up almost half of the action Blackbirdwith an extra complaint about how little the series has to say about deviant psychology, modern criminal justice or the prison industry complex – presented here with an almost astonishing absence of racial injustice, only superficial abuse of power and a bizarre level of general hygiene – would give a strong impression that I disliked Blackbird. This is largely not the case.
Egerton does an amazing job of making Jimmy feel like someone outside the hagiography. The full emotional arc he conveys prevents Jimmy from being completely unbearable – and he certainly should be. Lehane, along with comic book directors Michaël R. Roskam, Joe Chappelle and Jim McKay, acknowledges that even if Jimmy is our eyes and ears, viewers will ultimately just want to concentrate on the cool, layered thing Hauser does. In a show almost devoured by Jimmy Keene’s ego, Egerton deserves some credit for the ultimate lack of ego in his performance.
Hauser, who has very effectively found nerve-wracking vulnerability in real characters such as Richard Jewell and Shawn Eckardt, first introduces Larry through key external features such as his fluffy voice and bushy sideburns. Then he begins to dig into both Larry’s pain and the pain he caused. Things get more complicated, raising several hours of questions about how much or how little Jimmy and Larry play each other and how this constructed friendship can fill the actual needs of both men. Larry is scary, but he’s at least as sad and pathetic. The running time of the series and Lehane’s reliable gift of dialogue construction are able to showcase both of these aspects of him. Some of the tempting conversations in later episodes are five to ten minutes of uninterrupted talk and insinuations, great things that are always broken up to spend time sitting in a car with Greg Kinnear.
(A funny footnote is that Hauser achieved career-best reviews for Clint Eastwoods the same year Richard Jewell, Cameron Britton excelled in the same role in the anthology series Human huntingwhich caused some confusion with Britton’s turn as Ed Kemper in Netflix’s Mindhunterwhile Hauser’s performance here and the general imagination of Blackbird is sure to produce comparisons with Britton and Mindhunter. Mindhunter is much, much better, but Hauser and Britton are both great.)
Blackbird gets a huge gravity from one of Liotta’s last screen appearances. Liota’s death brings further gripping effect to a character who, through failing health and visits to his imprisoned son, handles his own mortality and inheritance. There’s a raw immediacy to Liota’s work here that I’m sure would hit home without the real grief. Liota’s Big Jim is hurt and falling apart, and because he’s miserable about Jimmy’s situation, so are we sometimes.
I want to pay tribute to Moafi, who is too often wasted and yet far better than her sparsely sketched character would require, and Jake McLaughlin, who dominates several scenes as Larry’s protective brother. As for Kinnear, it’s not that he’s bad. His role is just not a well-integrated part of the story.
Blackbird is methodical (but not as methodical as Mindhunter) in a way that gains power as the show progresses. There are logical leaps associated with Jimmy as a character and his unlikely mission that are easier to set aside as Egerton and Hauser dig deeper and deeper into their characters and their tentative dance. You just have to accept that you get Jimmy Keene’s very filtered perspective on his contribution to this case, and that you will want to fast forward every time Kinnear shows up. There’s probably good drama here to make it worth it.