There’s something different about Apple TV+ television shows. Though their burgeoning catalog is small relative to other streaming platforms, the amount of care they put into each production is abundantly evident. While Netflix used to seemingly greenlight any pitch, Apple TV+ is very selective, but when they do produce something, they throw enough money at it to feed an army. They’ve spent $200 million each on the upcoming film Argylle, the Scorsese film Killers of the Flower Moon, and the TV series Invasion, $100 million on an upcoming Christmas movie with Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds, and $250 million on the upcoming miniseries Masters of the Air. They’re not afraid to go big.
While the budget for Black Bird, a new true-crime drama, likely isn’t close to any of those massive projects, the series has the kind of patient, slick, professional look that Apple is practically trademarking at the moment. Like a lot of their series, Apple gives Black Bird the time and space to develop itself (the same way their series Slow Horses and For All Mankind are anything but rushed), and that sometimes glacial pace might be boring to someone who prefers the action-packed excitement of The Terminal List or something similar, but it absolutely works here.
Dennis Lehane Tackles the True-Crime Story of Black Bird
Black Bird, developed and written by Dennis Lehane, is inspired by a harrowing true story (recounted in the book In With the Devil) and brought to life by an extremely solid cast and crew. Lehane has been gradually transferring his skills from page to screen for some time now, beginning as one of the best psychological mystery-thriller writers out there (Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River, Shutter Island) before getting involved with scriptwriting (The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, Mr. Mercedes, The Outsider). Outside The Wire (one of the best TV series of all time), Black Bird is his best television writing yet. Lehane takes the true story and arranges it into a meticulous but coherent narrative that builds tension and grows like an avalanche.
Black Bird finds James Keene (Taron Egerton) sentenced to 10 years in prison for dealing; handcuffed and pushed down on a couch, the police lay out his crimes in front of him, tabletop iniquities including kilos of drugs, an array of illegal bullets and weapons, stacks of money, varied paraphernalia. He is offered a deal — he can serve his entire decade, or he can help the Feds and a prosecutor he hates by getting information from a suspected serial killer who is set to walk on appeal if more evidence isn’t procured. Keene’s dad (Ray Liotta) has suffered a stroke and won’t outlive his son’s prison sentence, and the alleged killer may walk in a month, so the clock is ticking.
The story oscillates between Keene’s story and some time earlier when the murders had taken place, girls had gone missing, and the police were investigating. The chief investigator on the case for the Vermilion County Sheriff’s Office in Illinois is Brian Miller (Greg Kinnear), who becomes convinced that the murderer is one Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser), a large, soft-spoken man who is socially awkward bordering on mentally disturbed.
Everyone who lives in Hall’s town finds it hard to believe that the gentle giant would be capable of killing at least 13 young girls and children, but Officer Miller and Lauren McCauley think he’s the man. McCauley offers Keene the deal, and the young, cocky drug dealer with a million-dollar smile is sent to a maximum-security prison to ingratiate himself to Hall, risking his life to commute the prison sentence, see his father, and get the truth about the murdered girls.
Taron Egerton and Paul Walter Hauser Shine in Black Bird
The cast of Black Bird is routinely excellent, with the two leads doing a wonderful job playing largely against type. Egerton broke through with his leading role in the Kingsman movies as Eggsy, and while the confident and rebellious lad (or ‘chav’) stereotype from that role is slightly present here, his work as James Keene Jr. is an altogether different beast. More jacked than an SUV having a tire changed, Egerton is buff and cocky, a former high school football star who gets everything (and everybody) he wants.
Much of Black Bird, however, is about this character learning to care about something other than himself, so he undergoes a process of empathy to try and befriend the alleged serial killer and coax some information out of him. The moments of fear and insecurity which wash over Egerton’s face at times are expertly played, and the actor injects a lifetime’s worth of background into a character the audience essentially meets at the point in which his life falls apart, a man on top of the world who now has to cozy up with a serial killer in a maximum-security prison.
That killer is hauntingly played by Hauser, who continues to display his acting prowess in a wide range of roles. Hauser is a naturally funny person and has stolen scenes as a guest in a litany of great comedies (Community, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Key & Peele, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Reno 911). He’s very funny in Cobra Kai as Stingray but can be menacing when he wants to (BlacKKKlansman). His best role before this was as the titular Richard Jewell, the underrated Clint Eastwood film about a hero wrongly accused of a bombing during the 1996 Summer Olympics, and he brings the same ambiguity and softness to Black Bird but with a much more unstable, disturbing touch.
Flanked by sideburns and often speaking in whispers, though capable of erupting without a moment’s notice, Hauser is to Black Bird what Anthony Hopkins was to Silence of the Lambs — he may not have the most screen time, but he haunts the entire project with his presence and continuously puts other characters (and the viewer) off-guard.
The Cast and Crew of Black Bird
The rest of the cast is excellent as well, including a subtle Greg Kinnear who gets a lot of small moments to play with as the chief investigator. He gives depth to little scenes, like playing with a window during a phone call or calmly asking someone to take two steps back, that fill in the details about this kind but clever and willful officer (based on the real Gary Miller). The late great Ray Liotta is also wonderful in what became one of his final roles, playing James’ father, a former police officer with a lifetime of issues. It can be heartbreaking watching the character suffer health problems and emotional struggles, knowing Liotta would pass soon after filming, which adds great gravitas to his scenes.
The score by Mogwai is also excellent. The legendary post-rock band has been killing it with soundtrack work, their original scores accompanying the great international series Les Revenants and ZeroZeroZero. Aside from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (of Nine Inch Nails, who Mogwai actually collaborated with on the score to Before the Flood), there are very few bands making consistent soundtrack work as good as Mogwai.
The cinematography by Natalie Kingston is great as well, alternating between the gloomy, gray claustrophobia of prison with the green, wide open spaces of farmland and fields. She handles close-ups very effectively, using them sparsely but with purpose, and her rare tracking shots are carefully suspenseful.
One Bad Choice in the Otherwise Excellent Black Bird
Director Michaël Roskam has worked with Lehane on The Drop, and their professional relationship certainly helps the director bring the script to life; he has an intuitive understanding of Lehane’s use of suspense and combines all the audiovisual elements that a great Apple budget can provide to accurately translate the script and story to film.
The only terrible choice in the series so far is its opening minutes; the establishing voiceover narration is weak and unnecessary and is utterly inconsistent with the tone of the series as a whole. The first five minutes of Black Bird feels like a college coming-of-age comedy. Otherwise, this hour-long drama is a patient, slow-burning, but wonderfully made and suspenseful success.
Black Bird is only a six-episode miniseries, but that is actually the perfect amount of time for this story, and it will surely be gripping to see how it all plays out. There’s frankly been too many true-crime series in recent years, but Black Bird is so far one of the best. Apple TV+ has aired two episodes to the public and will release one episode a week every Friday.