Created by crime novelist Dennis Lehane, Black Bird is a stylish, riveting prison drama propelled by its stunning central performances.
Often, true crime stories are relegated to the world of salacious documentaries that imbue water cooler conversations for weeks afterwards. But with Black Bird, based on the memoirs of the real-life James Keane, Apple TV+ have crafted something much more subtle, nuanced and more interested in the psyche than the gory details.
James ‘Jimmy’ Keane (Taron Egerton) is a charming, somewhat cocky career criminal and drug trafficker staring down a ten year prison sentence when the FBI approach him with an offer he can’t refuse. He’s given the opportunity to transfer to a maximum security facility for the criminally insane in order to befriend and elicit information from suspected serial killer Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser), ahead of his upcoming appeal hearing, in exchange for what remains of his sentence if he succeeds.
Black Bird is a slick prison drama that navigates its well worn path with an ease born from its writer, Dennis Lehane. A crime novelist whose work produced films like Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, Lehane’s thoughtful dialogue avoids clichés and the series takes its time, giving all aspects of its plot time to breathe. This languidness means scenes are sometimes slow and quiet, but always chilling and tense in their deliberate pacing. And then sometimes it sparks and there are moments of chaos that really give it momentum. In episode 4, ‘WhatsHerName’, there is a riot in the cafeteria of the prison, bloody, brutal and the epitome of the volatility of Jimmy’s new surroundings, as well as the position he’s placed himself in by agreeing to the deal. It’s a burst of energy that lets the rest of the episode devote itself to Jimmy getting Larry to talk to him without feeling like it has lost any of the excitement.
And it’s in the more dialogue-heavy scenes that Black Bird really shines, thanks to its array of very impressive performances. Egerton, on the heels of playing Elton John, lets his natural charisma ooze out of Jimmy, walking with an almost strut and showing off some pretty impressive muscle. He molds himself into what he needs to be at any given moment, be it a sympathetic ear or an aggressive protector, and Egerton adapts to each switch with an apparent ease. It’s a really layered performance, subtle and engaging, and Egerton also knows when to pull back and let his scene partners have their moments too.
Hauser’s Larry is almost the antithesis of everything Jimmy is: a loner, a weirdo, cripplingly awkward and full of intense hatred for women. There’s a quiet sinisterness to Hauser’s performance, the gentle, high-pitched voice and odd inflections really emphasise Larry’s disturbed mental stability without resorting to cliches, and the moments when he’s saying something truly horrific are when he appears at his most clear-eyed and relaxed. In perhaps the series’ standout episode, ‘The Place I Lie’ (episode 5), Jimmy and Larry have a heart-to-heart in which Larry admits details of the crime he was committed of. Larry is almost relishing in them, speaking in a matter of fact way that’s infused with glee at having got away with it. Hauser is so chillingly calm in the moment, keeping his speech pattern the same and seemingly glad to have someone to talk to, that it really emphasises how, despite his bravado and his dirty history, Jimmy is the least dangerous person in the room.
Egerton’s internal battle while Jimmy listens to Larry is also really impressive; the mixture of revulsion and sadness, mixed with a hint of hope at having got Larry to talk, is clearly visible in Egerton’s eyes, even as he fights to keep his face as blank and open as possible so Larry doesn’t stop. It feels like one of the dramatic climaxes of the series, the moment Jimmy, the FBI and us as an audience have been waiting for. It gives an edge to the finale (‘You Promised’) that doesn’t feel like it’s rushing to tie up the lose ends, that takes its time getting to its conclusion in a way that feels like a really satisfying way to end Jimmy’s – and, by extension, Larry’s – story.
Rounding out the cast are Sepideh Moafi as Lauren McCauley and Greg Kinnear as Brian Miller, the FBI agents desperately trying to find hard evidence against Larry to keep him in prison, Joe Williamson as prison guard Carter who tries to extort money from Jimmy, and the late, great Ray Liotta as Jimmy’s dad, ‘Big’ Jim. It’s a heart breaking turn from Liotta as the ex-cop living with regrets but full of palpable love for his son. His command of the screen rivals Jimmy’s bravado and lets audiences remember Liotta’s talent and ability to thrive in dramas of this ilk, even if he isn’t the one doing the dodgy dealings.
Alongside the stellar cast and nuanced script, Black Bird is also really stylishly directed – by Michaël R. Roskam, Joe Chappelle and Jim McKay – and visually impressive, as we’ve come to expect from Apple TV+ shows. It utilises flashbacks to give context to the nature of Jimmy and Larry’s lives, the dichotomies of their upbringing and the way in which it shapes who they become. Larry’s dad (Charles Green) is rough on him and makes him help dig graves as punishment for wetting the bed, while Jimmy’s dad comes home from a long shift at work and plays football with him in the yard, showing him obvious affection. Larry’s oddities are ignored and left to fester, while Jimmy flourishes and develops the confidence and charisma he carries with him into adulthood. It makes for a really interesting central pairing, a back-and-forth that’s bolstered by the work from those both in front of and behind the camera, and means Black Bird offers something a little different in a world of true crime stories left, right and centre.
In one particularly thoughtful moment, again in episode 5, the victim of Larry’s main conviction, Jessica Roach (Laney Stiebing), is given a part in telling the story of her death. The episode is bookended by her narration, giving her a chance to establish herself as more than the aftermath of Larry’s heinous crimes, as a girl who lived a life. It’s really affecting that the series takes the time to explore that, especially considering that Larry’s misogyny and the chillingly direct way he talks about her murder are pretty common fare in similar stories, and it’s testament to Lehane’s talent and familiarity with the genre that it feels like a natural expansion of the world taking place, and not a detour away from the most interesting parts.
Overall, Black Bird is a series that, while not treading much new ground, navigates a somewhat familiar world with freshness, confidence and style. It is complex and interesting, both visually and narratively, with really impressive performances across the board and a central ‘mystery’ that feels really engaging, thoughtful and nuanced. It’s a true crime prison drama that avoids the pitfalls of cliché and incredulity, and languishes in its pace because it knows you’ll be as riveted during the conversations as you are during the riots.