“So you want me to check into hell, cozy up to a f**ing demon and ask him all casual, ‘Hey, so where did you bury 13 bodies?’”
That’s exactly what FBI agent Lauren McCauley (Sepideh Moafi) expects Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton) to do in Black Bird, a riveting and powerful psychological thriller. The new six-episode series on Apple TV+ is based on events described by the real-life James Keene in his true crime memoir, “In With The Devil: A Fallen Hero, A Serial, and a Dangerous Bargain for Redemption.” Appropriately enough, the plot for Keene’s novel sounds like it was created in a Hollywood writer’s room.
A former high school football star and son of a decorated police officer, Jimmy Keene is sentenced to 10 years in a minimum security prison for dealing drugs when he’s given an offer he can’t refuse. If he agrees to go to a maximum security prison for the criminally insane and gets vital information from a suspected serial killer, he can have his sentence erased.
With a premise that’s almost stranger than fiction, Black Bird could have easily gone into Lifetime movie territory. But this series was developed by Dennis Lehane, and the veteran writer has his fingerprints all over this taught drama. The influence of Lehane’s previous work, most notably Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, can clearly be felt in Black Bird.
Its story is told through two different plotlines that gradually converge. One follows Jimmy in prison in 1996 as he slowly wades through the hellscape that is the mind of Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser). The other starts in 1993 and allows viewers to see how Agent McCauley and police detective Brian Miller (Greg Kinnear) arrest Hall but need Keene to make sure his conviction sticks. Black Bird weaves its story between these two plots marvelously.
When we first meet Jimmy Keene, things couldn’t be better. He’s living life to the fullest, driving nice cars and dressing like a Calvin Klein model. The handsome drug dealer is smart, charming, and surprisingly considerate. Jimmy helps out his friends and his retired cop father with work or money, and even gifts an orthopedic pillow to his drug supplier because Jimmy remembered him once complaining about neck pain.
Everybody loves Jimmy, which is why after he gets arrested he’s thriving in minimum security prison. He’s turned himself into a version of Red from The Shawshank Redemption, because he’s a man who knows how to get things. It’s also why he’s got the attention of Agent McCauley, who gives Keene an offer he initially turns down. However, when he learns his father is starting to have health problems and may not live to see him get out of prison, Keene changes his mind.
Over the course of the season, Jimmy painstakingly builds a friendship with fellow inmate Larry Hall. It’s a daunting task for Jimmy, as Hall is incredibly creepy. Avoiding eye contact, he speaks in a quiet and high pitched voice, and zones out from time to time. Hall can give you the history of sideburns (named after Gen. Ambrose Burnside, for your information), which you’re sure to notice because he wears them for Civil and Revolutionary War reenactments. He also claims to have dreams about committing murders but that’s all they are, dreams.
Despite the creep factor, everything about Hall’s persona appears to be a cry for attention. Sure he’s odd, but he’s also just desperate for someone to notice him. Is Hall just a harmless weirdo with some kind of personality disorder that makes him constantly confess to things he didn’t do? That’s what local law enforcement believe, until Miller and McCauley start digging into his past.
As Hall, Paul Walter Hauser is so convincing you may start to have doubts about his guilt. Everything about Hall makes him look like an obvious suspect, yet Hauser plays him against trope, coming across as weird but gentle. You can almost understand why law enforcement didn’t initially view him as a legitimate suspect. Hauser is mesmerizingly disturbing, and alongside him, Taron Egerton turns in an equally masterful performance as Keene.
Initially arrogant and braggadocious, Jimmy evolves from an emotionally detached, yet likable, criminal to a shell-shocked protagonist. It’s a gradual, yet compelling transformation, and one of many ways that allow Egerton to display his incredible range. This is further exemplified by his interactions with two other pivotal characters.
Even though they aren’t in many scenes together, Jimmy and his dad (Ray Liotta, in his last TV role) have an authentic father/son relationship filled with love but also a lifetime of regret. And Jimmy’s encounters with Moafi’s Agent McCauley are contentious and strangely flirty, yet also purposeful and entertaining—I wanted to see even more of their dynamic. But it’s ultimately Jimmy’s intense battle of wills with Hall that push Egerton into the leading man upper echelon, with one scene in particular standing out.
Late in the season, Jimmy pushes Hall to describe a litany of disturbing and horrific details, even though every sentence he hears is more devastating than the last—but the toll for his giant risk appears to be coming due. It’s an absolutely riveting and gut-wrenching moment that Egerton plays to perfection, and one of the finest performances I’ve seen on TV this year. Someone get Taron an Emmy right now!
While many of its side characters are nowhere near as fascinating as Larry Hall or Jimmy Keene, this series is gripping thanks to its two leads and an addictive story. A program that will keep you glued to your screen, Black Bird is as compelling, engrossing, and unique as the real-life tale it’s based on.
The first two episodes of the six episode season of Black Bird premiere Friday, July 8th on Apple TV+.
Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot and aspiring hand model.
When he’s not handing Taron Egerton Emmys, you can find him hiking in the mountains of Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.
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