An eerie cat-and-mouse chase between criminals is at the heart of this new streaming series.
When James Keene released his nonfiction memoirs of his time in prison, a journalist for the Buffalo News in the US wrote that if he didn’t know it was a true story, he would’ve rolled at his eyes at the hokey Hollywood plotline.
Keene was a low-level drug dealer serving 10 years in a minimum security prison when he was proposed with an offer from the authorities to reduce his sentence.
If he accepted, then he was to transfer to a maximum security facility, befriend a serial killer, elicit from him a confession 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 stay where he was to serve out his full sentence with no possibility of parole.
The scheme does sound like a Hollywood plot. So, it’s no wonder Hollywood saw in Keene’s story the potential for a gripping and eerie true crime miniseries.
Over six episodes, black bird stars Taron Edgerton as Keene and Paul Walter Hauser as Larry Hall, the alleged serial killer who was only convicted on a kidnapping charge even though the police had suspected his links to dozens of rapes and murders.
Edgerton and Hauser both play against type, turning in quieter, more restrained performances than the roles they’re best known for.
Edgerton’s Keene is brimming with charisma, a young man from a privileged background who’s used to having things his way, to the point that while he was in minimum security, he successfully set up a pornography loan program.
It’s those wits and confidence that made him a prime candidate for the Hall task, picked for his perceived ability to charm and seduce Hall into revealing his darkest secrets. He has a cocky assuredness that doesn’t feel extravagant.
Hall, with his distinctive sideburns is child-like, casting off a seeming naivete which belies the words he uses to describe what he supposedly did to victims. It’s a chilling juxtaposition which 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 a weird structural choice in that 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 each other 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 which period you’re in.
The performances from Edgerton and Hauser, as well as Greg Kinnear and Ray Liotta (one of his final roles), are considered and compelling. Even when the series buckles, the performances are always watchable.
Created for streaming by Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone, mr mercedes, Shutter Island), the series has many of the hallmarks that made Lehane such a successful crime novelist and writer. There’s texture and patience to black birda detail-rich world which slowly reveals itself.
Given it is true crime, there is a foregone conclusion which, if you know the ending, can deflate the stakes. Best to not google what happened.
black bird is a not a perfect series but it’s underpinned by a fascinating story, strong performances and a moody, unsettling vibe.
Black Bird is streaming on Apple TV+