Another true crime story…

Another day, another dramatisation of a true crime story. But, and it’s a big but, this is an absolute doozy. And what I mean by that is that it doesn’t feel like a true crime dramatisation. Instead, it feels like a high-concept Hollywood crime story, told slickly, brilliantly and, often, unsettlingly.

Based on the memoir, In With the Devil: A Fallen Hero, a Serial Killer, and a Dangerous Bargain for Redemption, written by James ‘Jimmy’ Keene and adapted by celebrated crime novelist and screenwriter Dennis Lehane, the six-part series stars British actor Taron Egerton as the eponymous central character. Jimmy is a drug dealer and gun runner who leads a very easy, lavish and carefree lifestyle – drugs, booze and women are plentiful, and his megawatt charm, strut and swagger immediately make you dislike him. However, after a deal goes wrong he’s sent down for 10 years, much to his disbelief and belief that he’s untouchable.

Elsewhere, in Indiana, a spate of missing girls leads detective Brian Miller (Greg Kinnear) to Larry Hall (Paul Walter Houser), a local eccentric with enormous sideburns who is given to talking about his vivid, grotesque dreams involving killing young women. Hall is also a janitor who knows how to clean things and rooms, and grew up learning how to dig graves. He’s also a fantasist who, almost in the same moment, is given to confess to killing young women and then recants.

Despite his unsettling ambiguity, Miller is convinced he’s the culprit and Hall is soon found guilty and sent to the notorious Springfield prison. But there’s a problem – with an appeal on the very near horizon, Miller’s case looks for all the world like it will be thrown out. Hall is just too slippery, too difficult to pin down. One minute he’s guilty, the next he isn’t. Crucially, Miller and his investigative partner of sorts Lauren McCauly (Sepideh Moafi) do not know where he buried his alleged victims.

So McCauley calls on Jimmy – now in prison himself – to offer him a deal: be transferred to Springfield, befriend Hall and try to coax the information out of him before he walks free.

It is a high-concept, well, concept and one that doesn’t feel as though this could happen in real life. Jimmy, still in unlikeable, cocksure mode, initially refuses the offer. But when his beloved father (Ray Liotta in his last screen role) has a stroke, he realises this is the only way he’s going to get out and spend some time before he passes away. So, reluctantly, he agrees to take on the mission.

Again, it feels like pure Hollywood stuff here and, as the first couple of episodes tick by and we go back to Miller’s initial investigation, I wasn’t sure whether this was a winner.

But when Jimmy eventually goes to Springfield, you suddenly find yourself totally enwrapped by the story. You cannot wait for Jimmy to meet Hall and to see how, if at all, he can get into his mind and find out the information that not only he needs to have his sentence quashed, but also the information Miller and McCauley need to properly convict Hall for the crimes they are certain he committed.

Once inside and the two start talking and become close, we’re presented with a fairly standard prison drama with all the tropes associated with the sub-genre. There are existential threats everywhere – the prison alphas, the hierarchy, the violence, the constant threats, and the corrupt prison officers. Heck, there’s even a prison riot.

But what elevates this from the norm is The Mission. Up until the last, we don’t know if Hall is a murderer or ‘just’ a sick, boastful fantasist, and, of course, there’s a ticking clock in play that means Jimmy has to work quickly but carefully.

And in doing so, Jimmy and Hall develop a friendship of sorts. And within that almost cat-and-mouse game, to gain Hall’s trust Jimmy must give Hall a piece of him. Soon, Jimmy’s mission turns into a redemption arc, in which he’s discussing and reliving and processing with Hall all of his own trauma growing up. As this develops, you realise that this is an intense and fascinating study of abandonment, trauma, childhood demons and, eventually, the role which parents play in the way adults are shaped and formed. It’s pleasingly and thrillingly deep and poignant in many places (you could compare it to Mindhunter in some ways), but underpinned, as I mentioned, by the overriding mission.

It’s also underpinned by some terrific performances. Egerton is just right as the cocksure Jimmy who’s forced to confront his own demons, and Paul Walter Houser as Hall is simply sensational – ambiguous, intelligent, sadistic and vulnerable all at once. And, of course, the late Ray Liotta reminds everyone why he was such a fine actor and why he will be sorely missed.

Another hit for Apple TV+ (and with a great score by Scottish post-rock band, Mogwai) Black Bird is a serial killer drama with a difference – a true crime story that not only movingly depicts the victims as real people with hopes and dreams, but also a true crime drama that doesn’t feel like a true crime drama. With the proliferation of true crime dramas now, this is a real compliment.

Highly recommended.

Paul Hirons

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Black Bird is available to stream on Apple+ TV

2 thoughts on “SERIES REVIEW Black Bird”

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