Each episode of “Black Bird,” which airs Friday on Apple TV+, begins with the caption, “The following is inspired by a true story.”
Now, TV shows inspired by true stories are in spades these days; the cachet attached to something that “really happened”, if not accurately portrayed by often very famous actors talking about made-up dialogues, can be a valuable promotional tool. The audience responds. Ergo the “true” in “true crime”.
In this case, however, the review almost seems necessary, given that the story seems a bit crazy even once you’ve done enough research to check the basic facts. — I haven’t read “In With the Devil,” the book the show is based on, but I did watch a CNN documentary and a “Dateline” episode on the subject. And while there was obviously an arrangement of events and a sculpting of characters for dramatic emphasis, the odd basics are true enough: In the 1990s, Jimmy Keene (muscled and unrecognizable Taron Egerton as that actor who was Elton John in ‘Rocketman’, serving time for drug trafficking, went undercover to a felony insane prison in an effort to obtain 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 tie her life to that of a young girl seen riding a bicycle through a cornfield, plays almost like an homage to “Goodfellas,” whose star, late Ray Liotta, plays Keene’s beloved if problematic father – a former cop, perhaps slightly twisted. (The narration returns intermittently through the series, including a speaking character from beyond the grave.) Jimmy the Younger, we’ll soon learn, offers his luxurious Chicago apartment and his fancy sports car and closet full of expensive clothes while selling cocaine; we also learn that he was a football star in high school and on some level he’s a decent guy, who brings the gift of a pillow to a drug addict who had complained of neck pain and goes in line to protect an old friend who cheated on him. He is also arrogant and smug, with “an ego that shows up half an hour before you walk into the…room”. But we don’t completely hate him – he’s charming, as we’ve been repeatedly told – and the character needs a place to go. It is a story of redemption.
Arrested and sentenced to 10 years, when he expected less, Keene is after several months approached by Edmund Beaumont (Robert Wisdom), the prosecutor who incarcerated him, with the aforementioned proposal: Transfer to another prison, get closer of Hall, get him to say where the bodies are buried and go free. Authorities fear Hall, whose appeal was successful, could be released from prison and kill again, inserting a countdown into the story. (They apparently aren’t concerned about what Keene might do once he’s out.) — looking for the sliver of misogyny Keene might use to connect with Hall.
After passing McCauley’s “audition”, Keene then finds himself in the benevolent United States Medical Facility for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Mo., whose population his father describes as “soulless monsters… perpetuity who have nothing to lose”. One can reasonably ask, as small-town attorney Brian Miller (Greg Kinnear) will ask McCauley, why a real, experienced undercover agent isn’t used; “Hall would feel it,” she replies. It still seems crazy to me, but that’s what happened.
Developed by Dennis Lehane, who wrote the novels ‘Mystic River’, ‘Shutter Island‘ and ‘Gone Baby Gone’ and was a writer on the Stephen King-based serial killer series ‘Mr. Mercedes’, it is played expertly, cleverly scripted and cleverly rendered in almost every part of it, though these parts are laid out in a sometimes confusing order, moving from period to period and between Keene’s journey and the investigations into the murders and missing people pursued by Kinnear’s right arrow detective, an oasis of normality in the moral mire.(McCauley appears in both storylines, and his effect in each is different enough that you might wonder at first if you’re not watching two different characters, if they are physically similar.) situation and old and new investigations in brief.
There are also digressions, including a rather moving sequence recounting the life of a victim and flashbacks of compare and contrast to Keene and Hall’s childhoods. In prison, there are Keene’s encounters with a real mob boss and a manipulative guard to add tension, and just enough mayhem to remind you that this is no ordinary hoosegow. Liotta’s scenes can also seem extended beyond what’s necessary just to keep him on screen a bit longer, a worthy enough proposition that brings the added benefit of Robyn Malcolm as his second wife, Sammy. , a tongue-in-cheek performance in a somewhat short show about irony. These passages, unassailable in themselves, give “Black Bird” a sense of patchwork and contribute to the sense, so familiar today, that rhythm is secondary to fill time. (At the same time, kudos to the producers for not extending the series. Six episodes in an eight- to 10-episode world still counts as modest.)
As Hall, wearing thick mutton chops grown for Civil War reenactments, Hauser performs like a dream — more in prison scenes, where he’s drugged — speaking in a breathy, high-pitched voice that emphasizes his weakness of character. (Hauser said he modeled his delivery on Hall’s own speech, but that doesn’t quite reflect the snippets I’ve heard; it’s basically an actor’s concept.) Keene’s schemes to Getting close to him, ironically, makes Hall more likable, given that 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), took more than his share of nutrition.
It’s debatable whether Hall is actually guilty — less stubborn cops than Miller have called him a “harmless crackpot,” a “serial confessor” for crimes he didn’t commit — but we don’t. never really doubt it. Serial killers, for all their cultural popularity, are significantly limited; they have one motivation and nowhere to go as characters. But Lehane and Hauser draw a lot from Hall, with speeches that, while not naming him an evil genius, aren’t devoid of insight or even poetry. Enough of them are also disgusting, which is the axis on which Keene will transition from a person who primarily cares about himself to a man with a conscience.
Beyond the standout subject matter, Liotta’s presence — in the first of her posthumous screen appearances — is what makes the series stand out more than usual. He’s an old lion playing an old lion, always trying to do well with his son and somehow failing and spending much of the series diminished by health issues – a very shadow of himself. that we encounter in its opening scenes, and certainly in Keene’s memory. Above all, there is this singular and innate mixture of rough and soft, a softness in his voice, his eyes, which since “Something Wild” has provided a kind of complicated counter-melody to the darker aspects of his less savory roles. (It’s hard to imagine “Goodfellas” could be watched without him.) That 30 years ago he could have played the son makes him a perfect cast for the father.