Why you should be watching Black Bird on Apple TV+
James R | On 16, Jul 2022
New episodes of Black Bird arrive weekly on Fridays. This review is based on Episodes 1 to 3.
“He just likes to talk.” That’s how the FBI describe Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser), a convicted kidnapper who is something of a serial confessor. He’s eager to make himself look bigger than he is, they say. He just wants the attention, they say. So when several young girls bodies need to be found, and it seems that Larry has something to do with it, the FBI are sceptical that he’s telling the truth. But what if he is? Enter Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton), the son of a former policeman who’s been raided on a drugs charge and ends up behind bars. He’s given a choice: 10 years in maximum security or befriend Larry and get the information the FBI needs. If he does, he gets to go free.
So far, so crime drama, although Black Bird has the claim to fame that it’s based on Keene’s own 2010 memoir (In with the Devil). That, however, doesn’t necessarily mean much in an age where our screens have become saturated by true crime stories, whether retold as drama, documentary or even comedy. Scripted by Dennis Lehane – who’s given us everything from The Drop and Gone Baby Gone to Mystic River, not to mention several episodes of The Wire – the six-episode series isn’t lacking in heft, delivering hulking, brooding tension with an intense stare. But it’s the smaller, delicate details that earns the show a space on your watchlist, with a cast that’s stacked with talent.
Whether playing Elton John or Eddie the Eagle, Egerton’s charisma as a performer is undeniable, and he dials up the charm with a swaggering arrogance here, smirking his way through Jimmy’s easy life. That should make him a loathsome figure but – although he’s not exactly nice – he’s certainly compelling to watch, as he moves from smug drug dealer to a man confronted with the very real risk of his own demise.
But there’s more to his arc than self-preservation, as agent Lauren McCauley (Sepideh Moafi) talks him through the FBI’s offer. From Jimmy’s childhood and relationship with his father to his view of women, what he likes about them and what he dislikes, Lauren needles and prods him into uncomfortable territory, challenging him to find the parts of him that identify with Larry’s nasty proclivities. Egerton’s nuanced expressions, which find new depths of horror the more he spends time with Larry, are fantastic to see ripple across his face.
Paul Walter Hauser, meanwhile, delivers a career-best performance as Larry. Delivering everything with a light, sing-song tone, he throws his dialogue away with a chilling, eery, almost childlike air – rambling from non-sequitirs to suddenly dark statements. All of this is served through the lens of us knowing that this man wants attention, but what’s great is the way that Hauser doesn’t overplay or try to hog the screen, shirking the cliched tics of the genre to give us someone who blends into the ensemble. Making the most of the deliberately slow pacing, he generously helps to make sure that the rest of the cast get a chance to shine.
That includes Greg Kinnear as the determined FBI agent Brian Miller, Moafi’s perceptive investigator, and a particularly superb Joe WIlliamson as corrupt corrections officer Carter (“stick a ‘Mister’ in front of that”), who intimidatingly swings between friendly and fierce from one line of dialogue to the next. But the best of the bunch is the late Ray Liotta as Jimmy’s father, an officer whose mob connections have left not only his son in trouble but also him unable to help him. It’s a poignant turn full of unspoken sorrow. Black Bird is a show that likes to talk, but it also knows when to say nothing. Liotta’s still presence – his steely eyes staring out from behind a grizzled, bearded mask of regret – packs a tragic punch.