Review: Taron Egerton shines in gripping true-crime mystery ‘Black Bird’ on Apple TV+

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Black Bird' on Apple TV+

Dennis Lehane wrote the source crime novels for Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River” (2003), Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone” (2007) and Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” (2010).

On Friday, he drops the true-crime mystery “Black Bird” on Apple TV+, a gripping six-episode miniseries that brilliantly blurs the lines of truth and fiction in a sinister world.

Based on a true story from the 2010 novel “In with the Devil: a Fallen Hero, a Serial Killer, and a Dangerous Bargain for Redemption,” the miniseries follows hotshot Jimmy Keene, who receives 10 years in a minimum-security prison on drug and weapons charges.

However, he cuts a deal with the FBI to enter a maximum-security prison to befriend suspected serial killer Larry Hall, who’s confessed to so many murders that authorities don’t know what to believe. It is Jimmy’s job to elicit a concrete confession from Larry in order to discover the whereabouts of the bodies of nearly two dozen missing women.

After his flamboyant musical chops as Elton John in “Rocketman” (2017), Taron Egerton shows stunning range here with the quiet, macho vibes of James Dean, Monty Clift or Marlon Brando. He’s a testosterone-fueled, emotionally scarred inmate trying to win the trust of the serial killer, while reading his eyes and outwitting him with reverse psychology.

Paul Walter Hauser has found his niche as a bumbling sidekick in “I, Tonya” (2017), racist henchmen in “BlackKlansman” (2018) and bombing suspect in “Richard Jewell” (2019). In “Black Bird,” he’s extremely creepy with a high voice, emotional outbursts, bloodshot eyes and woolly sideburns, which he likes to call “burnsides” after his favorite Civil War general.

Greg Kinnear and Sepideh Moafi are determined detectives, tracking the clues in police-procedural fashion, while Jake McLaughlin shines as Larry’s supportive brother in denial of his sibling’s demons. The most bittersweet casting is a posthumous Ray Liotta as Jimmy’s ailing father, seeking late-in-life redemption for being a “Cat’s in the Cradle” absent father.

(According to IMDB, Liotta has five other projects in various stages of production: “El Tonto,” “Cocaine Bear,” “Dangerous Waters,” “April 29, 1992” and “The Substance”)

Liotta’s screentime is limited compared to his co-stars, but it’s a meaty performance with severe stakes. After all, Jimmy’s quest to get out of prison in time to enjoy his father’s final years is the perfect ticking-clock device to create a Damocles Sword of urgency. Knowing Liotta’s real-life fate makes a diner scene particularly hard to watch. Damn, he was good.

Ironically, James Gandolfini teamed with these same filmmakers for his final posthumous film role in “The Drop” (2014), written by Lehane and directed by Michaël R. Roskam, whose “Bullhead” (2011) earned an Oscar nod for the Best Foreign Language Film. Roskam’s hand is all over “Black Bird” in trippy flashbacks and nightmare sequences.

At times, the episodes are oddly structured. The detectives disappear for long stretches as Lehane spends increasing narrative time inside the prison. Behind bars, you will detect certain prison-drama tropes and forced subplots — one solitary confinement “mix-up” feels particularly manufactured for extra drama — but hey, Hollywood has creative license.

If you can handle the somber subject matter, true-crime fans will love it. “Black Bird” is a gripping mystery with complex characters, detailed backstories and palpable danger. Best of all, it comes to a definitive conclusion without much ambiguity. Like “Zodiac” (2007), viewers know the truth, regardless of the justice system, and that’s enough catharsis.

4 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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