Each episode of Black Bird, which premieres Friday on Apple TV+, begins with the caption, “The following is inspired by a true story.”
Well, TV shows inspired by true stories are a dime a dozen these days; The stamp of approval on something that “really happened” can be a valuable promotional tool, albeit not exactly as portrayed by often very famous actors speaking made-up dialogue. The audience reacts. Ergo the “true” in “true crime”.
In this case, however, the clue feels almost necessary, as the story seems a little crazy even after you’ve done enough research to verify the basic facts. — I haven’t read “In With the Devil,” the book the series is based on, but I’ve seen a CNN documentary and a “Dateline” episode on the subject. And while some events were obviously staged and characters molded for the sake of dramatic emphasis, the odd basics are true enough: In the 1990s, Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton, muscled and unrecognizable as the actor who played Elton John in Rocketman) , who was serving a sentence for drug trafficking, went undercover at a prison for the criminally insane to extract incriminating information from suspected serial killer and convicted kidnapper Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser), with the promise that success would lead to his freedom.
That the series begins with a narration by Keene about the butterfly effect that will connect his life to that of a young girl seen riding a bicycle through a cornfield plays almost like a homage to “Goodfellas”, whose star, the late Ray Liotta, plays Keene’s beloved if troubled father – a former, perhaps slightly twisted, cop. (The narration returns restlessly throughout the series, including a character speaking from the afterlife.) As we’ll soon learn, Jimmy the Younger affords his luxurious Chicago apartment and his fancy sports car and a closet full of expensive clothes through trade with cocaine; We also learn that he was a high school football star and that in a way he’s a decent guy who gifted a pillow to a drug fraternity who had complained of neck pain and risked it to protect an old friend who cheated on him. He’s also cocky and smug, with “an ego that announces itself half an hour before it enters the…room.” But we don’t hate him entirely – he’s charming, we’re repeatedly told – and the character has to go somewhere. This is a redemption story.
Arrested and sentenced to 10 years despite expecting less, after a few months Keene is approached by Edmund Beaumont (Robert Wisdom), the prosecutor who locked him away, with the aforementioned suggestion: transfer to another prison, closer to Hall , take him there Say where the bodies are buried and go free. Authorities fear Hall, whose appeal has been upheld, could be released from prison and killed again, adding ticking clockwork to the story. (They don’t seem to care what Keene might do once he’s out.) There’s some self-consciousness on Keene’s part and semi-hostile flirtatious banter with federal agent Lauren McCauley (Sepideh Moafi), who squeezes a lot of explanatory background out of him – on looking for the whiff of misogyny Keene could use to bond with Hall.
After passing McCauley’s “auditions,” Keene finds himself in the sympathetically named United States Medical Facility for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, whose population his father describes as “freaks without souls… mates with nothing to lose.” One might wonder why small-town attorney Brian Miller (Greg Kinnear) would ask McCauley why a real, experienced undercover agent wasn’t used; “Hall would smell him,” she replies. It still sounds silly to me, but it happened.
Developed by Dennis Lehane, who wrote the novels Mystic River, Shutter Island, and Gone Baby Gone and worked on the Stephen King-inspired serial killer series Mr. Mercedes,” it’s expertly acted, intelligently written, and intelligently rendered in almost all parts, though these parts are arranged in sometimes confusing order, alternating between time periods and between Keene’s journey and the murder and missing persons investigations pursued by Kinnear’s straight-line detective , an oasis of normality in the moral dirt and swamp. (McCauley appears in both story arcs, and her impact is so different in both story arcs that you initially wonder if you’re not seeing two different, albeit physically similar, characters.) Even with the streamlining, it may take some mental squinting to Keeping Hall’s legal situation and the old and new investigations in focus.
There are also digressions, including a rather moving sequence narrating the life of a victim, and comparative and contrasting flashbacks to Keene and Hall’s childhoods. Inside the prison, there’s Keene’s encounters with a real-life mob boss and a manipulative security guard to add to the suspense, and just enough mayhem to remind you this is no ordinary Hoosegow. Also, Liotta’s scenes can feel beyond what is necessary just to keep him on screen a little longer, a worthy suggestion that brings the added benefit of Robyn Malcolm as his second wife Sammy, a tongue-in-cheek performance in a show that’s something short of irony is . These passages, which are inherently unassailable, give Black Bird a patchwork feel and add to that now-familiar feeling that tempo is secondary to filling time. (Also kudos to the producers for not making the series longer. Six episodes in a world of eight to 10 episodes is still considered modest.)
As Hall, who wears thick mutton chops grown for Civil War re-enactments, Hauser performs as if in a dream – more likely in the prison scenes where he’s drugged – and speaks in a breathy, high-pitched voice that underscores his flaw in character . (Hauser has said that he modeled his speech on Hall’s own speech, but it doesn’t really reflect the snippets I’ve heard; it’s basically an actor’s concept.) Keene’s strategies for getting close to him ironically make Hall more compassion as Keene is a fake friend he takes for a real one, just another insult in a life of hurt that began in the womb: his protective twin brother, Gary (Jake McLaughlin), ate more than his share of food.
There’s room to question whether Hall is actually guilty — cops less adamant than Miller have written him off as a “harmless lunatic,” a “serial confessor” for crimes he didn’t commit — but you never really doubt it . Despite their cultural popularity, serial killers are dramatically limited; They have a single motivation and have nowhere to go as characters. But Lehane and Hauser get a surprising amount out of Hall, with speeches that, while not branding him as an evil genius, are not without insight or even poetry. Plenty of them are gross, too, which is the axis along which Keene will transform from being a self-care person to a man of conscience.
Aside from the remarkable subject matter, Liotta’s presence – in his first posthumous screen appearance – makes the series more than usual remarkable. He’s an old lion who plays an old lion who still tries to please his son and somehow fails, marring much of the series with health issues – a shadow of even the self we encounter in his opening scenes, and certainly in Keene’s memory. Above all, there’s this unique, innate blend of roughness and sweetness, a softness in his voice, his eyes, that from Something Wild onwards has provided a sort of intricate counter-melody to the darker aspects of his less palatable roles. (It’s hard to imagine “Goodfellas” being watched without him.) That he could have played the son 30 years ago makes him a perfect fit for the father.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2022-07-07/black-bird-review-apple-ray-liotta-taron-egerton How ‘Black Bird’ on Apple TV+ honors the late Ray Liotta