The Real Horrors Are Humans in HBO’s Adaption of Stephen King’s ‘The Outsider’

The work of Stephen King is populated by haunted souls, not always necessarily in the supernatural sense. His novels are about disturbed psyches and damaged lives, suddenly trapped within incredible events. “The Outsider,” a rich HBO adaptation of a King bestseller, opens with a murder and becomes a mystery about whether a man is innocent or guilty, but at its core is about the trembling lives populating its plot.  

In a small Georgia town a young boy’s body is found in the woods, for detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) the only viable suspect seems to be local teacher Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman). Terry is arrested and interrogated but he denies the crime. Not only that, but there’s proof he was in different places at the same time, making him both a suspect and also not. Witnesses place him at the crime scene however, and there’s fingerprint evidence linking him to the murder. Anderson’s search for the truth leads to wild discoveries, personal revelations and searing questions about guilt.

Jason Bateman has given himself the hard task of not only starring in “The Outsider,” but directing as well, a feat he has already pulled off in Netflix’s highly acclaimed “Ozark.” As with that show, what first succeeds about his take on Stephen King is the use of atmosphere as an immersive tool. The Georgia woods and suburban spaces become shadowy, eerie places where families and individuals hide rages and pain. He allows the camera to pace with a liquid ease, never using too many abrupt cuts or rushed pacing. Tension is generated with little violence, as when Anderson arrests Terry in the middle of a Little League game, or when the camera pans into Terry’s jail cell as another prisoner warns him that he’ll soon meet the kind of prison justice meted out to child killers. Bateman also plays with the audience’s perceptions, never revealing too quickly what we’re dealing with in terms of why Terry would be seen with blood on his face behind a white van, yet claim he was somewhere else at that exact same moment. It’s a great mind puzzle, never going for some easy supernatural excuse even after three episodes.

Even the grandest King yarns that have been turned into TV series are actually about the people. This is what makes King such a good writer, there is an underappreciated human element beneath the plots. In “The Outsider” few if any of the characters are one-dimensional. Anderson is haunted by the horrific murder of his own son, and as he investigates this new killing he and his wife constantly deal with their own pain. Terry’s wife Marcy (Julianne Nicholson) must also deal with the nightmare of Terry being accused. Bill Camp plays Howie, a family lawyer who defends Terry and stands off with the police who are sure they’ve caught the right guy. This character also has his own complexities and as the narrative progresses and the story gets stranger, arriving inevitably at a more Kingesque conclusion, new characters drop in with intriguing backgrounds. There’s Holly (Cynthia Erivo), an investigator who enjoys checking on the heights of trees and follows the trail of Terry’s activities. Marc Menchaca plays Jack, another cop with his own personal demons who has moments of brutally intense acting when experiencing private twists and turns that eventually connect to the grander theme of Terry’s case. 

Once “The Outsider” becomes more of a conventional thriller, trading over some of its atmosphere for more classic suspense and twists, it still never loses its depths. It is a show about pain and uncertainty. Because this is a Stephen King tale there are scares, and the explanation for what really happened can’t help but feel a bit over the top, but like other King adaptations such as “The Mist,” where alien creatures terrorize Maine, it’s all decoration for down to earth topics. “The Outsider” understands that real, human pain is more soul-shaking than any invented monster.

The Outsider” premieres Jan. 12 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.