The premise of the new psychological crime drama ‘Black Bird’ might be brushed off as overly fanciful, if not downright hokey, were it not rooted in actual events.
By Inkoo Kang
THE premise of the new psychological crime drama “Black Bird” might be brushed off as overly fanciful, if not downright hokey, were it not rooted in actual events: a convicted drug dealer (played by Taron Egerton) befriending a suspected serial killer (Paul Walter Hauser) in prison to pry out the location of a victim’s remains in exchange for a commutation of his own 10-year sentence. (If he fails, the murderer will probably be released and continue to kill.)
Concocted by the FBI, the plan is so far-fetched that it earns the immediate scorn of a respected cop (Greg Kinnear).
“What you’re doing isn’t police work,” he tells the federal agent (Sepideh Moafi) co-ordinating the scheme. “It’s desperation.”
Adapted by novelist Dennis Lehane from James Keene’s memoir “In With the Devil,” the Apple limited series is the TV equivalent of a pair of dad jeans – a little dated, maybe a bit too comfortable in established patterns, but not giving up entirely on staying current.
Set in the mid-1990s and in limited supply of the visual sleekness that distinguishes so much of Apple’s programming, it often looks and feels like a throwback.
Hauser’s real-life murderer, Larry Hall, is such a cliché he comes with a creepy van – and an even creepier voice. High, thin and wheezy, his utterances make him sound as if his lungs have never got enough air.
In fact, that’s partly why the police in Larry’s Midwestern hometown initially dismiss him as a “serial confessor” – a “harmless weirdo” who grew up by a cemetery, dug graves as a kid to help support his parents and admitted to killing teenage girls so he could feel like a somebody.
Within his family, too, he’s cast as the born loser – the twin whose nutrients were absorbed in the womb by his older brother. Gary (Jake McLaughlin) developed into a handsome, athletic boy who found it easy to attract girls. Larry followed them around in his van.
Clearly (if competently) padded out into a six-hour drama with a movie’s worth of twists and turns, “Black Bird” is most compelling not as a psychological profile of a disturbed anomaly but as a study of societal failure – specifically, how Larry’s unsettling behaviour toward girls in the town and his misogynistic views were excused or enabled by his protective family and overlooked by law enforcement. (One of the cleverest gambits in Lehane’s scripts is that, while Larry’s actions represent the far edges of humanity, his idealisation of young, “unspoilt” girls as sexual partners isn’t exactly a fringe view.)
Mutton-chopped and pimply-faced, Larry knows just how to evoke pity from the more traditionally powerful men around him, posing as a simple-minded fantasist who can’t tell reality from his murder-filled dreams.
He is, however, smart enough to abduct girls in one state and leave their bodies in another, confounding detectives who are in the dark about similar cases in neighbouring jurisdictions in Illinois, Indiana or Wisconsin.
One of the series’s main pleasures is watching him gradually reveal his true self – and his apparent death toll – to his suspiciously amiable new buddy Jimmy (Egerton).
Hauser, the show’s standout, presents a terrifyingly shrewd version of his screen type as a darkly comic bungler (as seen in “I, Tonya” and “BlacKkKlansman”).
Unfortunately, the drama’s other half – Jimmy’s descent into the hell of an institution for the “criminally insane” and forced bond with a monster that makes him confront long-repressed memories of his own violence-filled childhood – is too by-the-numbers to be emotionally engaging.
If Larry is believably villainous in his dehumanising narcissism and self-justifying delusions, the ostensibly charming Jimmy is too calculated a hero to fully resonate, especially when his ageing father (Ray Liotta in his final TV role) starts suffering medical crises to make his son’s perilous journey toward freedom that much more urgent.
Before a transfer to the supermax facility, Jimmy’s FBI handler, Agent Lauren McCauley (Moafi), instructs him not to get additional years tacked onto his sentence.
“Black Bird” ably conveys how the corrupt hierarchy and blood-soaked chaos of a maximum-security institution peck away at the equilibrium of even someone as relatively normal as Jimmy, a smug pretty boy who only ever wanted a short cut to the good life – and that’s before he becomes so disgusted by Larry’s secrets that his performance of friendship starts to get unbearable.
But to watch “Black Bird” is ultimately to consider how true-crime stories like it have recently shifted in their thematic and perspectival priorities.
FX’s “Under the Banner of Heaven,” this spring’s adaptation of the Jon Krakauer exposé of murder among Mormon fundamentalists, hews to more contemporary tropes, foregrounding, for example, an exploration of the role of women in the show’s 1980s suburban Utah milieu while dedicating ample screen time to developing the character of the primary murder victim, Brenda Lafferty.
Arriving a few years after the peak of pop culture’s obsession with serial killers, “Black Bird” somewhat undercuts its own critique of the masculinist circling of wagons with its disinterest in the victims and its sole significant female character, Agent McCauley, who’s needlessly sexualised while barely fleshed out. But no one expects anything but a well-worn familiarity from dad jeans.
“Black Bird” is streaming on AppleTV+.