Black Bird Review: Taron Egerton’s grandiose psychodrama continues Apple’s stellar year

Black Bird takes care of that, a goofy crime drama with the heart of a life-affirming fable Apple spring 2022 bleeds into the summer. It’s the streamer’s fourth major television show this year, and almost literary in its approach of telling a sprawling story without ever losing sight of (or respect for) its characters.

And that makes sense, since it was “developed” by Dennis Lehane, the man behind such popular novels as Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island, and Mystic River. But Lehane isn’t adapting his own work here. Black Bird is “inspired” by the 2010 non-fiction book In With The Devil: A Fallen Hero, A Serial Killer, and A Dangerous Bargain for Redemption by James Keene, played on the show by Kingsman star Taron Egerton .

Too bad most people would remember Egerton for his stellar roles in those goofy spy movies rather than his range as a performer in his two collaborations with director Dexter Fletcher — the inspirational drama Eddie the Eagle and the Elton John biopic Rocketman. But those who have experienced a wider range of his work would recognize the rare blend of artistry and pure movie stardom he has been blessed with.

Despite being surrounded by exceptional actors like Ray Liotta, Greg Kinnear and Paul Walter Hauser – we’ll get to him in a moment – Egerton is compelling as the articulate, drug-dealing Jimmy. When Jimmy is arrested in an operation that could probably teach the NCB a thing or two about how to correctly identify and apprehend drug dealers, he makes a deal with the state but is duped.

Tricked into a plea deal that gets him 10 years without parole, the FBI offers him an exit. He could rot in prison for the next decade of his life, or instead help authorities with a case. Jimmy is transferred to a maximum security prison for the criminally insane, where he must use his people skills and befriend a man suspected of killing 14 women. After earning Jimmy’s trust, he must worm the exact location of a buried body that police hope will be enough to put the suspected killer in jail for life. In return, Jimmy is allowed to walk free.

What unfolds in the next six episodes is psychological drama of exceptional quality. It’s tightly constructed, beautifully performed, and always emotionally satisfying.

It would have been so easy to alienate the audience from Jimmy. After all, he’s quite a ruthless criminal, especially when we’re first introduced to him. But writing so deftly shifts our allegiance in his favor that it almost goes unnoticed. Boldly relying on our ability to empathize when Jimmy is screwed by the DA and locked away. And then it’s the wise decision to put Jimmy in a moral dilemma when it comes to the mole operation. Had he agreed to this immediately, the show could have risked making him appear selfish. But instead, Jimmy has other motivations. His father, played by the late great Ray Liotta, suffers a stroke following Jimmy’s sentencing. And it’s the realization that his father probably won’t be around 10 years that compels Jimmy to rather selflessly accept the FBI’s offer. Suddenly, even his quest for freedom has greater meaning.

By projecting Jimmy as an unjustly treated man and putting him up against someone whose potential crimes are far more serious by comparison, the show deftly lures the viewer to his side. This is crucial because unlike the action-driven Hindi crime dramas To which we’ve grown accustomed, Black Bird is completely character-driven. They fail to keep the audience invested in the protagonist’s life, and no amount of narrative twists and turns will save you.

The drama focuses on the mind games Jimmy has with suspected killer Larry Hall. Played by Paul Walter Hauser in another scene-stealing performance – how does he pull it off every time? — Larry is an odd little man with a fascination for Civil War re-enactments. He’s devotedly growing big sideburns, which he tells anyone who’ll listen are actually called “burnsides.” He speaks in a high pitched tone, laughs at the wrong moments, and seems to harbor a deep hatred of women. Larry lives on the fringes of society, being ostracized for his perceived oddness and vilified for being “weird”. It’s enough to send anyone over the edge, but while the show humanizes the character, it wisely stops at not empathizing with him.

Jumping between the claustrophobic prison drama and a race against time murder investigation that unfolds on the outside, the show is stylish to watch – Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam brings a palpable authenticity to the first three episodes – but the performances are the material lift. And even Lehane couldn’t have written a more meaningful farewell for Liotta, whose character spends most of the show grappling with not only his son’s imprisonment but his own mortality. Deceptively emotional, overly engaging and enthusiastically populist when need be, Black Bird soars.

Black bird
Creator – Dennis Lehane
Pour – Taron Egerton, Paul Walter Hauser, Greg Kinnear, Sepideh Moafi
valuation – 4.5/5

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