With a tight six-episode run, Black Bird cements itself as one of the most engrossing true-crime dramas of the year. That’s really saying something when 2022 is already littered with shows belonging to the genre, from the good (The Dropout, Under The Banner Of Heaven) to the bad (Joe Vs. Carole, Candy). Black Bird distinguishes itself with a pointed, disturbing script; nearly flawless performances by Taron Egerton, Paul Walter Hauser, and the late Ray Liotta; and an ability to build tension and curiosity at a swift pace.
Primary credit for Black Bird, based on James Keene’s autobiographical book In With The Devil, goes to series creator, co-writer, and co-director Dennis Lehane. The Wire and Shutter Island vet has a knack for gut-wrenching dialogue, quickly transforming a seemingly nonchalant conversation between two criminals into a pretty freaking chilling nightmare. The show is flush with an intense cat-and-mouse chase as suave drug dealer Jimmy Keene (Egerton) attempts to get an honest confession out of potential serial killer Larry Hall (Hauser), who has allegedly murdered several young girls and women across multiple states. But Black Bird’s action isn’t literal or violent. It’s mostly found in the show’s jarring dialogue, which examines and breaks down the psyches of the two leading characters as Egerton and Hauser deliver career-best performances.
Jimmy, a smooth-talking felon from Illinois, anticipates only a two-year sentence for dealing in narcotics and illegal possession of firearms. The brash son of an ex-cop, he wears his entitlement is like a suit of armor. So when he gets 10 years of jail time, his world is turned upside down until a few months later, when prosecutor Lauren McCauley (Sepideh Moafi) offers him a deal: Jimmy can be a free man again if he can coax Larry into admitting where he’s buried his victims before Larry’s second appeal. If the plan sounds a bit unreal, because it kind of is, remember that Black Bird is based on a real story.
This is not an easy task for Jimmy, whose only real attachment is to his dad, Big Jim (Liotta). Why should he care about keeping Larry behind bars, or about women he’s brutally killed and their families who still know no peace? He ultimately agrees for selfish reasons: He wants to get out early to spend time with Big Jim, whose health is rapidly declining. All of Egerton and Liotta’s scenes are rife with an unlikely tenderness. There are always barriers between the father-son duo, whether physical or emotional, but their connection is a solid throughline anyway. In his final on-screen role, Liotta proves why he’s a masterclass actor. His wide-eyed, evocative performance elevates Black Bird beyond just the depiction of a harrowing true-crime saga.
Over the course of the show, and without excusing any of Jimmy’s notoriety, Black Bird also wisely humanizes his personality as he interacts more with Larry. Their scenes are a stark reminder of David Fincher’s triumphant Mindhunter, and Jimmy and Larry’s exchanges are just as invigorating and enlightening as Holden and Bill’s interrogations of various serial killers. The two become a tense mirror of sorts for each other as they bond in a stressful and enclosed setting, where there’s nowhere to look but within.
Egerton aces Jimmy’s duality while switching from being overtly confident to silently breaking down. It helps sell Jimmy’s precarious predicament when he moves to the Missouri Supermax that houses Larry, where Jimmy faces dangers such as utter paranoia, blackmailing guards, and prison riots. Thankfully, none of these issues overtake the meat of the story, which occurs when Larry finally opens up and shares some of his unsettling “dreams.” Nothing can prepare you for Hauser’s hair-raising performance. With a soft, barely audible voice he easily unfurls lines like “I would eat my pet dog” and has dark discussions about penetration or the problems with raising the age of consent, all while maintaining a gleam in his eyes. It’s awfully disquieting.
In what could be written off as an exploitative gimmick, a later episode is narrated by one of Larry’s victims, a teen named Jessica Roach (Laney Stiebing). But it works. Not only does the tactic take us out of the dreary prison, but it also sheds light on how Larry functioned and the impact of his deeds. And most importantly, it leads to a breakthrough in the case for Lauren and Indiana detective Brian Miller (Greg Kinnear). The show’s parallel timelines, including witnessing Jimmy and Larry’s respective childhoods, aren’t a distraction, either. Black Bird uses these storytelling devices to its advantage, letting the suspense simmer just long enough before sucking us back in again.