Black Bird review: A truly bizarre crime drama with killer performances

A bizarre cat-and-mouse chase between criminals is at the heart of this new streaming series.

When James Keene published his non-fiction memoir of his time in prison, a reporter for the Buffalo News in the United States wrote that if he hadn’t known it was a true story, he would have rolled his eyes at the plot. Hollywood hokey.

Keene was a low-level drug dealer serving 10 years in a minimum-security prison when he received an offer from authorities to reduce his sentence.

If he agreed, he would then have to be moved to a maximum-security facility, befriend a serial killer, get a confession from him, and the location of his victims’ bodies. And he had to do it quickly because the killer’s appeal was going through the courts.

If he refused, he would remain where he was to serve his full sentence without the possibility of parole.

The scheme looks like a Hollywood plot. It’s no wonder, then, that Hollywood saw in Keene’s story the potential for a gripping and bizarre crime miniseries.

In six episodes, Black bird stars Taron Edgerton as Keene and Paul Walter Hauser as Larry Hall, the suspected serial killer who was only convicted on one kidnapping charge, even though police suspected his ties to dozens of rapes and murders.

Edgerton and Hauser both play against type, turning in quieter, more subdued performances than the roles they’re best known for.

Edgerton’s Keene oozes charisma, a young man from a privileged background who is used to doing things his way, to the point that while in minimum security he managed to set up a porn loan program.

It was this wit and confidence that made him a prime candidate for Hall’s task, chosen for his perceived ability to charm and seduce Hall into revealing his darkest secrets. He has an arrogant assurance that doesn’t come across as extravagant.

Hall, with his distinctive paws, looks like a child, rejecting an apparent naivety that belies the words he uses to describe what he is supposed to have done to the victims. It’s a chilling juxtaposition that the series exploits.

The best scenes are the cat-and-mouse exchanges between Keene and Hall, verbally dancing around each other to see who will capitulate.

There is an odd structural choice as the narrative jumps between the “present day” of Keene’s mission and the investigation a few years earlier. The lurches between the parallel storylines don’t necessarily overlap, and given the visual similarities between the early ’90s and the mid-’90s, if you look away for a moment, it’s not always immediately clear in which period You are.

The performances of Edgerton and Hauser, as well as Greg Kinnear and Ray Liotta (one of his final roles), are thoughtful and compelling. Even when the series loops, the performances are still watchable.

Created for streaming by Dennis Lehane (Gone baby gone, Mr Mercedes, shutter island), the series possesses many of the characteristics that made Lehane a successful crime novelist and writer. There is texture and patience for Black birda world rich in detail that slowly reveals itself.

Since it’s a real crime, there’s a foregone conclusion which, if you know the ending, can deflate the stakes. Better not googling what happened.

Black bird isn’t a perfect series, but it’s underpinned by a compelling story, solid performances, and a moody, unsettling vibe.

Black Bird is streaming on Apple TV+

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