FIRSTLOOK: “BLACK BIRD”
By David Baldwin
It is the mid-90s and Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton) has just been arrested for a multitude of offenses. The high school football star and son of retired cop Big Jim Keene (the late Ray Liotta in one of his last filmed roles) is encouraged to take a plea deal with the hope of getting out jail quickly. Instead, the judge makes an example of Jimmy and sentences him to ten years with no chance of parole. Months later, he is offered a deal: elicit a confession from suspected serial killer Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser) – who is currently residing in a maximum security prison for the criminally insane – and get out of jail early, or turn it down and wait out the remainder of his sentence.
BLACK BIRD is inspired by true events and comes with the added pedigree of being written and created by Dennis Lehane, the acclaimed Novelist behind titles like Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone and Shutter Island. The first two episodes make for a compelling set-up for the six-episode Mini-Series, introducing us to all of the players and setting the stakes sky high right from the start. The transitions from present to past and back again are a little clunky in some areas while being downright riveting in others. Hauser, who has truly honed his craft over the past half-decade, is incredible as Hall, creating a character that we are immediately unsure of. Is he telling the truth? How does he know certain details, but not others? Why is he so soft spoken? I had a lot of questions and uneasy feelings about him, and the series plays right into all of that and allows Hauser the freedom to dig deep and explore Hall’s idiosyncrasies. I will not call it his best work yet (not when his turns in I, Tonya and Richard Jewell still exist), yet I look forward to being endlessly fascinated by his performance and genuinely hope it sticks the landing.
And yes, it is just as gut-wrenching and heartbreaking to see Liotta on-screen after being taken from us less than two months ago. He is absolutely mesmerizing in his supporting role. Such a tremendous loss.
Sadly, I cannot speak highly of the rest of the Series at this point. The first two episodes are slickly-produced and look great, but also feel unnecessarily dragged out. Whole swaths of scenes could have been trimmed down to mere montages, mere pieces of dialogue or excised entirely. What that boils down to is the hard truth that these early episodes do not make a great case for why BLACK BIRD exists as a prestige Mini-Series and not a two-and-a-half-hour film. Egerton’s accent is great and he gets to show off his acting range (and his ridiculously sculpted abs, which I have to assume are in place for his rumoured desire to play the MCU’s Wolverine), but does not really wow. His chemistry with Sepideh Moafi’s FBI Agent Lauren McCauley is fiercely palpable at least – as is the edginess Moafi brings to her character. Greg Kinnear is solid as Detective Brian Miller, but again, is not really afforded the chance to wow.
BLACK BIRD may prove to be compelling, must-watch Television. There are certainly hints of greatness parsed throughout these early episodes and I do look forward to keep watching, if only for Hauser. My fear is that the next four will be just as stretched thin and padded-out. But I genuinely hope I get proven wrong.
The first two episodes of BLACK BIRD premiere Friday, July 8, 2022 on Apple TV+, with each new episode arriving every Friday throughout July.