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Based on a riveting true story, Black Bird is the critically-acclaimed crime thriller from Dennis Lehane about football star turned drug dealer Jimmy Keene (played by Taron Egerton), who went undercover for the FBI while in prison to befriend the serial killer Larry Hall.
In addition to Taron Egerton (The Kingsmen, Rocketman) in the lead as Keene, Ray Liotta (Goodfellas) plays his policeman father in what sadly became his last role.
Greg Kinnear (The Stand, Shining Vale) is memorable as the detective Brian Miller, but it’s the Golden Globe-winning performance by Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell) as Larry Hall that will captivate you the most.
The series was created by Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River) and executive produced by Richard Plepler, the former long-tenured HBO chief who worked with Lehane on the acclaimed shows Boardwalk Empire and The Wire.
One of the most compelling new dramas of the year got eclipsed when it premiered on Apple TV+ at the height of last summer. Yet despite the crush of true crime shows across the networks and streamers, Black Bird rises above them with its gripping narrative, David Fincher-esque mood, and the intensity of its characters.
It’s a series that begins as Goodfellas before flipping on us into a deeper, darker, psychological thriller, one that’s based on the chilling true story of one of the most prolific–yet least known–serial killers.
Black Bird slowly unfurls its mechanics upon the viewer. Our anchor is Jimmy Keene, played by Taron Egerton, the local hero turned drug dealer who takes a deal in prison to earn his freedom. All he has to do is earn the trust of a man who is suspected of raping and killing dozens of young girls and women.
As Keene, Egerton walks the perfect tightrope between cocksure arrogance and vulnerability, at once calculated and slick but also naive. Yes, he evokes Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, the rising wise guy who gets himself in over his head and who is offered a potentially dangerous way out of the clink.
So we’re almost expecting it when we meet Liotta himself, playing Jimmy’s decorated ex-cop father, who has to come to terms with his own son landing in prison. Liotta’s role serves as a timely reminder of just how great an actor he was in the hands of the right material.
But the real genius of Dennis Lehane’s enticingly languid series is how he pieces together the timelines and perspectives as he delves into the disturbing crimes of Larry Hall. Our encounters with the Civil War re-enactor turned suspected killer initially come through flashbacks of him with the investigating detectives, Brian Miller (Greg Kinnear) and Lauren McCauley (Sepideh Moafi), and the unraveling of his story is always compelling, throwing doubt upon his conviction at every turn.
What might be most impressive however is the performance of Paul Walter Hauser, known primarily for his penchant for playing bumbling characters for comedic effect. Here, however, he brings just the right amount of his off-kilter persona but imbues it with enigma and ambiguity. When you see Hannibal Lecter, you are aware from the outset of the cut-and-dry nature of his crimes and punishment. But Hall, as played by Hauser, toys with our judgment. He is difficult to read, and it’s as frustrating as it is enthralling.
Black Bird demands but rewards patience, thanks to sharp writing, direction, and stellar performances. Seek out this overlooked gem, perhaps the best crime drama of 2022.
Where to watch Black Bird: Apple TV+
In a sea of dramas about serial killers, Black Bird rises to the top as a psychological thriller that peels away the layers to get to the more profound questions beneath.
Deeper Dive: Indiewire‘s Kristen Lopez looked at how the show “interrogates masculinity in a way that invites people in with a crime story, only to leave them with a call for deeper introspection about how we all move through the world.” See her full review.
True crime and Dennis Lehane fans won’t want to miss this one. But Black Bird is also for viewers who like psychological dramas as well as for writers and actors, who will appreciate the six-episode series as a kind of masterclass, one that challenges expectations while immersing us into a world more complex than meets the eye.
Rated TV-MA, the limited series depicts some violent scenes, including self-harm and a prison riot. The rapes and murders are not shown but are discussed in some graphic and gory detail.
What to watch after: You might want to counter-program after this one, and since the algos won’t do that for you, try filtering your streaming options for lighter fare with the Watercooler’s Recommendation Engine.