‘Black Bird’: One inmate tries to outwit the other in taut prison series on Apple TV+
Taron Egerton leads a knockout cast as a macho drug dealer tasked with wangling evidence from a suspected serial killer.
A very early scene in the intense and engrossing Apple TV+ limited series is set in the Chicago of November 1996, with Taron Egerton’s macho, supremely self-confident Jimmy Keene manning the bar in his bachelor pad while his high school football buddies from Kankakee watch old footage of Jimmy’s glory days on the gridiron. As “Mr. Brownstone” by Guns N’ Roses blasts on the soundtrack, Jimmy climbs into his candy apple-red sportscar and roars off to a warehouse, where a drug deal quickly goes sideways.
It feels as if we’re in for a slick, raucous crime thriller on the order of films such as “Blow” or “American Hustle” or series such as “Narcos.”
But wait. Earlier in that episode, we had seen a 15-year-old girl riding her bike on a road past some cornfields in the town of Perrysville, Indiana, and now we return to that locale as Greg Kinnear’s Detective Brian Miller is called to the area, which is now a crime scene. The girl has been murdered, her body dumped in the fields within walking distance of the bike path. Suddenly, “Black Bird” has the look and feel of a stark and brooding investigative procedural, à la “Mindhunter” or “Zodiac.”
A six-episode series premiering with two episodes Friday on Apple TV+. A new episode will premiere each Friday through Aug. 5.
Eventually, though, “Black Bird” is set primarily in a maximum-security prison and becomes a two-hander as Jimmy strikes up a precarious and dangerous bond with the man who killed that girl and might be responsible for the murders of more than a dozen other girls and young women. There’s a tonal shift to a prison story with elements of “The Shawshank Redemption” or “Brubaker.”
That “Black Bird” succeeds so well in all of the aforementioned genres is a tribute to the writing of the masterful Dennis Lehane (author of “Mystic River,” “Shutter Island,” “Gone Baby Gone”) the directing work of Michaël Roskam and Joe Chappelle, the noir-perfect cinematography from Natalie Kingston and one of most outstanding ensemble casts of the year, led by Egerton, Kinnear, Paul Walter Hauser as the suspected serial killer Larry Hall, Sepideh Moafi (“The Deuce”) as a determined FBI agent and the late Ray Liotta in one of his final roles, doing nomination-worthy supporting work as a retired cop who is Jimmy’s father and is living on borrowed time.
Based on the 2010 book “In With the Devil: A Fallen Hero, A Serial Killer and a Dangerous Bargain” by the real Jimmy Keene, this taut and compelling series is all the more impactful because it’s based on true-life events. A buffed-up, tightly wound Egerton is miles away from his role as Elton John in “Rocketman” and carries a kind of James Caan/Sean Penn swagger as Jimmy, whose cockiness quickly fades when he’s slapped with a 10-year sentence for dealing narcotics and weapons possession when he was told it would be only a two-year hitch.
FBI Agent Lauren McCauley (Moafi, excellent as usual) comes to Jimmy with a highly unorthodox proposal: They’ll transfer him to a supermax prison and place him in a cell next to Hauser’s Larry Hall, who has been convicted of one murder and is suspected of many others — but could be back on the streets due to a technicality. If Jimmy can extract information that will implicate Larry in these killings, Jimmy’s sentence will be commuted and Larry will never see the light of day again. At first, Jimmy scoffs at this longshot scheme and says no thanks — but he changes his mind after his beloved father, James “Big Jim” Keene (Liotta), suffers a debilitating stroke. There’s almost zero chance Big Jim will outlive Jimmy’s sentence, so Jimmy agrees to the transfer.
Paul Walter Hauser has mastered the art of playing sad-sack, wannabe tough guy outcasts in films such as “I, Tonya,” “BlacKkKlansman” and “Richard Jewell,” but he takes it to a whole different level with his portrayal of Larry, who sports disturbingly bushy “Burnsides” (not sideburns, he’ll correct you) because he’s a Civil War re-enactor and speaks in a soft, creepy, high-pitched voice. Egerton and Hauser have a number of scenes containing page after page of dialogue, and the two are superb together as Jimmy befriends Larry and tries to get him to confess without arousing suspicions. Perfectly placed flashbacks provide insights into the childhoods of Jimmy and Larry, and we occasionally revisit events from the point of view of Big Jim, with Liotta doing a magnificent job of conveying the pain a father feels because he feels he let down his son. (A scene in which Big Jim tries to order a cheeseburger and coffee in a diner but can’t get the words straight because he’s on the verge of another stroke is memorably devastating.)
“Black Bird” is filled with dominant male characters, so Sepideh Moafi provides invaluable balance as the only key female player in a story about the murders of so many girls and young women. In a tricky move that could have come across as emotional manipulation, one episode of the series hands over the narration to Jessica Roach (Laney Stiebing), who tells us from beyond the grave about how much she loved her life. It’s a highly effective technique, reminding us that while the men are the focal point of this story, we should never, ever forget about the victims, whose burial sites remain undiscovered to this day.