Black Bird review: Taron Egerton’s terrific psychological drama continues Apple’s excellent year

A pulpy crime drama with the heart of a life-affirming fable, Black Bird ensures that The Apple Spring of 2022 bleeds into the summer. It’s the streamer’s fourth great television show of the year, and almost literary in its approach to telling a sprawling story without ever losing sight of (or respect for) its characters.

And that makes sense, because it’s ‘developed by’ Dennis Lehane, the man behind such popular novels as Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island and Mystic River. But Lehane isn’t adapting his own work here. Black Bird is ‘inspired’ by the 2010 non-fiction book In With The Devil: A Fallen Hero, A Serial Killer, and A Dangerous Bargain for Redemption, by James Keene, who’s played in the show by Kingsman star Taron Egerton.

It’s a pity that most people would remember Egerton for his breakout role in those silly spy films, and not for his range as a performer in his two collaborations with director Dexter Fletcher—the inspirational drama Eddie the Eagle and the Elton John biopic Rocketman. But those who’ve experienced a wider sampling of his work would recognise the rare mix of artistry and pure movie stardom that he’s been blessed with.

Despite being surrounded by exceptional actors such as Ray Liotta, Greg Kinnear and Paul Walter Hauser — we’ll get to him in a moment — Egerton is magnetic as the smooth-talking, drug dealing Jimmy. When Jimmy is busted in an operation that could probably teach the NCB a thing or two about how to correctly identify and apprehend drug peddlers, he enters into a bargain with the state, but is double-crossed.

Scammed into a plea deal that gets him 10 years without parole, he’s offered an out by the FBI. He could rot in jail for the next decade of his life, or instead, assist the authorities with a case. Jimmy will be transferred to a maximum security prison for the criminally insane, where he will have to use his people skills and befriend a man suspected of killing 14 women. Having gained his trust, Jimmy will have to extract from him the exact location of a buried dead body, which the police hopes will be enough to put the suspected killer away for life. In exchange, Jimmy will get to walk free.

What unfolds over the next six episodes is a psychological drama of exceptional quality. It’s tightly constructed, wonderfully performed, and always emotionally satisfying.

It would’ve been so easy to alienate the audience from Jimmy. He is, after all, a rather remorseless criminal, especially when we’re first introduced to him. But the writing so deftly shifts our allegiances in his favour that it’s almost unnoticeable. Boldly, it counts on our capacity for empathy when Jimmy is screwed over by the district attorney and locked away. And then, it makes the smart choice to put Jimmy in a bit of a moral quandary when it comes to the mole operation. Had he agreed to it immediately, the show could have risked making him seem selfish. But instead, it gives Jimmy different motivations. His father, played by the late great Ray Liotta, suffers a stroke after Jimmy’s sentencing. And it is the realisation that his dad probably isn’t going to be around for 10 years that compels Jimmy, rather selflessly, to take the FBI up on their offer. Suddenly, even his pursuit of freedom has a larger meaning.

By projecting Jimmy as a wronged man, and by pitting him against someone whose potential crimes are way more serious by comparison, the show cleverly lures the viewer to his side. This is crucial, because unlike the plot-driven Hindi crime dramas that we’ve become accustomed to, Black Bird is entirely character-driven. You fail to get the audience invested in the protagonist’s life, and no amount of narrative twists and turns are going to save you.

Central to the drama are the mind games that Jimmy has with the suspected killer Larry Hall. Played by Paul Walter Hauser in yet another scene-stealing performance — how does he manage to do this every time? — Larry is an odd little man with a fascination for Civil War re-enactments. Fully committed to the bit, he’s grown large sideburns that he tells anybody who’s willing to listen are actually called ‘burnsides’. He speaks in a high-pitched tone, laughs at all the wrong moments, and seems to harbour a deep hatred for women. Larry exists on the fringes of society, outcast for his perceived oddness, and vilified because he’s ‘weird’. It’s enough to send anybody over the edge, but while the show humanises the character, it wisely stops short of empathising with him.

Jumping between the claustrophobic prison drama and a race-against-time murder investigation that unfolds on the outside, the show is stylish to look at — Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam brings a tactile authenticity to the first three episodes — but it’s the performances that elevate the material. And even Lehane couldn’t have scripted a more meaningful send-off for Liotta, whose character spends the majority of the show not only grappling with his son’s incarceration, but his own mortality. Deceptively emotional, eminently engaging and enthusiastically populist when it needs to be, Black Bird soars.

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