Crime dramas based on real events are having quite a moment right now — and when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. The real-life stories that inspire the shows have a potent, macabre appeal, and the actors involved in them are afforded the opportunity to explore some extremely dark places through a wide range of fascinating, all-too-real characters.
The Apple TV+ series Black Bird is a sterling example of just such a project, and elevates an already compelling real-world story with powerful performances from leads Taron Egerton and Paul Walter Hauser — the latter of whom makes a strong case for himself when the next award season comes round.
The six-part series casts Egerton as James “Jimmy” Keene, a drug runner who cuts a deal with federal prosecutors to have his 10-year sentence commuted if he can convince fellow convict Larry Hall (Hauser) to confess incriminating details about the abduction and murder of several young girls. To do so, he must enter a hellish, maximum-security prison for the criminally insane and gain Hall’s trust while avoiding threats posed by both inmates and corrupt guards and keeping his mission a secret. The series is inspired by Keene’s own 2010 autobiographical novel In With The Devil: A Fallen Hero, A Serial Killer, and A Dangerous Bargain for Redemption and is developed by Dennis Lehane (The Wire) for Apple.
In their respective roles, Egerton and Hauser deliver sublime performances as Keene and Hall, the focus of his dangerous assignment.
Egerton has always been fantastic at playing characters brimming over with (and occasionally hiding behind) confidence, regardless of their actual abilities. Playing Keene, however, asks a bit more of Egerton, as the Rocketman and Kingsman actor must shift between the various versions of himself Keene presents in the series. There’s the image of Keene he presents to the world, the persona he presents to Hall, and the person he is when he’s alone and allows himself to be vulnerable. It’s a role that requires plenty of nuance and flexibility, and Egerton brings his best to the performance.
As Hall, Hauser continues to build his reputation as one of Hollywood’s hidden gems. Whether he’s elevating a henchman role in Cruella, playing the titular lead in biopic Richard Jewell, or portraying a fan-favorite character in Cobra Kai, Hauser finds a way to make every role unique and memorable — and his portrayal of Hall is no exception. From his slumped posture and conversational affectations to the sense of simmering danger baked into his quiet moments, everything Hauser brings to the character enriches the picture of Hall he paints. Given the raw, disturbing subject matter the role demands, it’s not an easy character to inhabit, but Hauser disappears into Hall’s sad, sinister skin with terrifying (and impressive) ease.
While the show’s two leads deliver performances strong enough to carry the entire series, Black Bird has an embarrassment of riches in its supporting cast, too.
In one of his final roles before his death earlier this year, Ray Liotta (Goodfellas) plays Keene’s father “Big Jim” Keene, a retired police officer with an unconditional love for his son — despite all of his mistakes. It’s a softer, more emotional performance for Liotta than we’re accustomed to, but it’s wonderful to see the celebrated actor explore this kind of role.
Liotta is joined in the supporting cast by Sepideh Moafi (The Deuce) and Greg Kinnear (As Good As It Gets) as the two primary investigators — federal and local, respectively — working to keep Hall behind bars. Moafi makes the best of her screen time with a fine performance as the FBI agent who recruits Keene and manages to consistently counter Keene’s confidence with a cold sense of certainty about the part she’s playing in ensuring justice is served. On the flip side, Kinnear brings a relatable humanity to his role as the local investigator doggedly pursuing Hall. His character is more than the typical, small-town cop with good instincts, and he feels like a fully fleshed-out person instead of a character — or worse, a caricature — giving the narrative surrounding the investigation a sense of real humanity.
Beyond its impressive cast and their performances, Black Bird also benefits from a great sense of pacing.
While many limited series — particularly crime dramas — seem content to tread water for a few episodes and pad out the story with indulgent plot threads that are unnecessary or, at worst, distracting from the primary narrative, Black Bird is a refreshingly efficient presentation of Keene’s saga. While the show jumps back and forth in time to present certain events in the case and the lives of everyone involved, the arcs in these segments never feel disconnected from the psychological cat-and-mouse game playing out inside the prison. Each individual episode of Black Bird packs a hefty punch, which is something that can’t be said of the vast majority of the show’s genre ilk.
Although Keene’s story isn’t particularly unique and captivating on its own, Black Bird is elevated by the strong performances from its cast and its expertly crafted script. Those elements make it stand out in a crowded genre and deliver a thoroughly satisfying — and often unsettling — saga played out in six, potent parts.
The first two episodes of Black Bird premiere Friday, July 8, on Apple TV+. New episodes will premiere weekly on Fridays.