Dan Webster reviews "Black bird"
America just can’t get enough of true crime – especially when the crime in question involves murder. Latest example: The Apple TV+ miniseries “Black Bird.”
Developed as a six-episode production by the novelist Dennis Lehane, “Black Bird” is a dramatization of the 2010 memoir carrying the lengthy title of “In with the Devil: a Fallen Hero, a Serial Killer, and a Dangerous Bargain for Redemption” written by James “Jimmy” Keene and Hillel Levin.
Taron Egerton plays Keene, with Ray Liotta – in one of his final performances before dying on May 26th at age 67– playing his father. But even though the cast includes both those skilled actors, plus Greg Kinnear as an investigating police officer and Sepideh Moafi as an FBI agent, the film’s most interesting performance is put in by Paul Walter Hauser as the convicted serial killer Larry Hall.
Which isn’t surprising. Though he’s guest-starred in a number of television shows, Hauser is perhaps best known for his roles as the inept instigator behind figure skater Nancy Kerrigan’s assault in the 2017 film “I, Tonya” and as the overly trusting title character in Clint Eastwood’s 2019 film “Richard Jewell.” In both features, Hauser was perfectly cast as a character whose dreams were bigger than his abilities to achieve them.
His portrayal of the real-life Richard Jewell captured the essence of a guy too naïve for his own good. Considered a joke by others, particularly the police officers he admired, Jewell was mistakenly thought to be the person who set off a bomb at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics when, in actuality, he was the one who discovered the bomb and through his actions saved a number of lives.
As the serial killer Hall, Hauser takes his acting in a far different direction. Playing someone with obvious mental deficiencies, Hauser makes Hall a blend of pathos and sociopathy, someone driven to commit murder – in his case the rape-murder of young teen women – but then is able to convince himself (perhaps as a legal ploy) that his so-called crimes were merely bad dreams. The result is as chilling a portrait of a murderer as you’re likely ever to see.
Series creator, executive producer and head writer Lehane, known both for novels such as “Gone Baby Gone” and “Mystic River,” and the movie adaptations made of both, oversaw how three different directors and a trio of other screenwriters helped shape “Black Bird.”
The protagonist, of course, is Keene, ably portrayed by the Welsh actor Egerton (who played Elton John in the 2019 biopic “Rocketman”). A former high school football star, the cocky Keene is arrested on a drug charge and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Liotta plays his father, a former cop whose health declines over the course of the series – as it did in real life.
Keene’s fortunes change when he is offered a deal: The authorities want him to find a way to befriend Hall and find out where the murderer has stashed his victims’ bodies. The hitch: He has to transfer from the relative safety of his minimum-security facility to a dangerous maximum-security hell-house.
He does, of course, or there wouldn’t be a movie. And, according to reports, much of what Lehane and the other writers portray – other than some altered timelines, invented dialogue and a few changed names – actually happened..
It's always a question, though, as to whether such stories need to encompass six full episodes. And that’s particularly true of “Black Bird,” given all the effort to portray the murder investigation and the fact that, when all is said and done, that part of the story doesn’t have a completely satisfying ending,
That view, however, doesn’t diminish Lehane’s principled attempt to give at least one of the victims a voice by, in a few scenes, portraying the dead girl (played by Laney Stiebing) narrating her own story
Nor does it detract from the acting, of Egerton and Liotta but particularly of Hauser. The touching sequences featuring the actress Stiebing may bring you close to tears, but Hauser’s performance just might cause you to suffer a few sleepless nights. That much I can tell you from experience.
For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.
Besides being a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, “Movies 101” host Dan Webster writes the Movies & More blog for Spokane7.com.