‘Black Bird’ Enters an Unnerving Psychological Labyrinth to Corner a Killer

At first it sounds like a familiar plot in the annals of crime TV and film. A convict is offered the chance to redeem himself if he can help the authorities corner another, much more dangerous criminal. Apple TV’s six-part limited series “Black Bird” is indeed about sending one prisoner after another. It is also so much more. What makes this unique series quite riveting is a serious journey into dark psychological terrain. Acclaimed novelist and screenwriter Dennis Lehane is not weaving fiction here, but taking inspiration from fact. His basis is the book “Black Bird: One Man’s Freedom Hides in Another Man’s Darkness” by James Keene, who was indeed tasked with coaxing a confession out of a serial killer in order to commute his own sentence. Like any good storyteller, Lehane finds searing drama in the facts, exploring how the line can blur between a person and a monster.

It’s the 1990s and Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton) is a high school football prospect who has decided to indulge in petty crime. It just seems easier to sell drugs, get women and run guns than to aim for the pros. Soon enough, Jimmy gets arrested and handed down a 10-year sentence. It’s a bitter irony considering Jimmy is the son of a retired cop, Big Jim Keene (the late Ray Liotta in his final role). What hasn’t run out is Jimmy’s luck. He’s approached by FBI agent Lauren McCauley (Sepideh Moafi) with a unique offer out of a thriller.  An incarcerated rapist and killer, Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser), might land parole soon. McCauley and the original agent on Hall’s case, Brian Miller (Greg Kinnear), are convinced he is harboring information on many more murders of young women across the Midwest. If Jimmy can get close to Larry and coax him into confessing to the other murders, he can walk free. Jimmy isn’t exactly enthusiastic about the idea but eventually agrees to do it. First, he’s moved to the maximum security prison where Larry is located. Once he meets the killer, getting close to him brings its own emotional dangers.

It’s become cliché to use the word “atmosphere” a lot when describing any crime show these days, mostly because they tend to be shot in low light with moody editing. “Black Bird” is skillfully lensed in a Midwestern world with gray skies, shadowy rooms and jail cells perpetually in darkness. More than the look, what enhances the effect is the storytelling coupled with two stunning performances by Taron Egerton and Paul Walter Hauser. It’s a unique pairing of personalities. Jimmy isn’t another killer sent to sniff out a fellow predator. He’s a cocky jock and womanizer who gets arrested with his latest hook up snoring on the couch. When he enters the world of Larry, his psychological makeup turns out to be quite fragile. Lehane, who has written books and films of intricate mental battles like “Mystic River” and “Shutter Island,” turns the story into an unnerving seduction. Unlike flashy movie serial killers, real ones are pitiful, dangerous and perversely human figures. Hauser has excelled at playing empathetic and pathetically corrupt people in “Richard Jewel” and “I, Tonya,” here he taps into a truly disturbing, broken mindset. 

While early episodes do have more of that classic true crime feel in how Miller and McCauley begin investigating the disappearances linked to Larry, the heart of the series is in the prison interactions between crook and killer. Lehane challenges us to listen to Larry as if he were any average lonely guy. His initial conversations with Jimmy are like an unpopular kid at school hanging out with the star football player. Larry is both admiring and resentful at how attaining women and sex has been so easy for Jimmy, who has the kind of handsome looks Larry lacks. He likes to probe into the details before discussing his own, twisted fantasies. For the audience this all becomes its own engaging puzzle because the FBI isn’t sure if Larry might just be a “serial confessor,” or an attention-seeker willing to fess up to anything just to get noticed. In terms of how “Black Bird” explores the male gaze, it sets a few narrative traps that are unique. Early on we get the typical moments where Jimmy flirts with the attractive agent McCauley, yet that persona vanishes by the end, when he’s engaged with several episodes with a predator that sees sexual conquest as a violent form of satisfaction. 

“Black Bird” can be categorized as a slow burner but it never drags. It would have been difficult to stage this as a feature film because we need the extra time for Jimmy to work hard at adapting to maximum prison life (including breaking a few noses) and befriending Larry. There have been some recent, strong movies about dissecting abnormal psychology, like Amber Sealey’s “No Man of God,” about an FBI agent absorbed by interviewing Ted Bundy. “Black Bird” has ample space for the psychological standoffs and episodes that also give us a view into the backgrounds of both men. To see Larry’s decrepit childhood is to glimpse at what forms a person. As an adult Larry participates in Civil War and Revolutionary War reenactments, forever keeping his large sideburns intact. We soon realize it’s a way for him to both escape, dive into an obsession and practice a bit of fake violence. His twin brother, Gary (Jake McLaughlin), seems deceptively more stable but is just as emotionally scarred as his sibling.  Taron Egerton, who was so great in the Elton John biopic “Rocket Man,” also brings a welcome complexity to his character. His whole slick personality from the pilot is revealed as a mask to hide other insecurities, and the fears of losing his ill father. Ray Liotta’s performance, done while he was actually ill on set, is tough and emotive. He’s a strong personality here hiding genuine affection for his son. It’s a wonderful send-off for the legendary actor. 

The final hour of “Black Bird” is a wrenching experience because of how Jimmy’s journey comes full circle. He gets so close to a demented psyche that it will forever leave him marked. Anti-heroes are an ongoing trend but this one is very unique. He’s a criminal in the sense that he broke the law, but Jimmy is no monster, while Larry certainly is, but in such a deceptive way that he could be your next door neighbor. The most unnerving villains are the ones who could be standing in line behind you at the supermarket. In order to get a confession, Jimmy has to make such a mind open itself to him. One of the best early scenes in the series has Jimmy undergo an interview process where McCauley forces him to truthfully express what he feels about women. Rarely are characters forced to reflect on themselves in such a way on a true crime show. “Black Bird” is a riveting story that also doesn’t let the audience off the hook so easily. It forces us to stare at the reflection of reality with great performances devoid of the comforts of cheap fiction.

Black Bird” begins streaming July 8 with new episodes premiering Fridays on Apple TV+.