Thursday, July 07, 2022

Dennis Lehane’s Black Bird, on Apple TV+

Most of the names have not been changed in this true crime drama, not for the guilty or the innocent. The guilty party in question is extremely, horrifyingly guilty. The protagonist is not so innocent either. However, when convicted drug-dealer Jimmy Keene agrees to go undercover to collect incriminating evidence on a serial killer poised to be released on appeal, he gets an immersive lesson in the dark side of human nature. “Scared straight” does not begin to describe Keene’s experiences in showrunner-writer Dennis Lehane’s six-episode Black Bird, which premieres tomorrow on Apple TV+.

Keene was once a promising high school athlete, but injuries led to bad decisions. Having the semi-autos was probably a reasonable precaution in his business, but not-so much when he gets collared. To make a point, the U.S. Attorney engineers a stiff ten-year sentence, but a few months later, he offers Keene an unusual deal. All will be forgiven if he agrees to a transfer to a maximum-security prison, befriend Larry Hall, and discover where he buried his victims.

Initially, Keene declines, but he changes his mind after his father’s stroke. “Big Jim” Keene is an ex-cop, who was most likely on the take. In any event, Keene’s mother is no longer in the picture, so he needs Keene. Only the warden and the prison psychiatrist will know Keene’s true identity and his mission, which means he could face a lot of interference from the crooked guards. Meanwhile, FBI Agent Lauren McCauley will chase down overlooked details in the investigation with Indiana cop Brian Miller (whose name was probably changed from “Gary” to avoid confusion with Hall’s fraternal twin, Gary, who remains stubbornly loyal to Larry out of guilt).

Based on real-life James Keene’s memoir,
In with the Devil, Black Bird is not nearly as graphic and deliberately disturbing as Oz, but it definitely makes prison look like an extremely uncomfortable place to do time. Regardless, the chess game that unfolds between Keene and Hall is totally gripping and the procedural work of McCauley and Miller is also surprisingly compelling. Lehane’s writing is sharp, but he also gives time to the victims, literally letting one teen girl “speak” for herself, which provides an important reminder of what the case was really about.

This could be some of Taron Egerton’s best work so far, because he shows quite a range as the formerly brash Keene, often bringing to mind vintage Mark Wahlberg. When gets shocked, terrified, and disgusted, viewers totally feel it and believe it. Likewise, Paul Walter Hauser is deeply creepy as Larry Hall, because he plays him in such an understated, insinuating manner. Also, Sepideh Moafi and Greg Kinnear are quite engaging as McCauley and Miller. The energy never flags when
Black Bird shifts to them—sometimes it even increases.

Sadly, this will be one of the final credits for the late Ray Liotta, but it is a solid role in a quality production to help close out his career. In fact, he is often quite poignant depicting Big Jimmy coming to terms with his parental guilt and failing faculties.

Given the source material, most viewers will assume they know where
Black Bird is going, but it is still probably the strongest conventional prison drama since Brawlin Cell Block 99. The cast is uniformly strong and Lehane never loses sight of the grief and suffering caused by Hall. Recommended for fans of Lehane and true crime dramas like Sleepers, Black Bird starts streaming tomorrow (7/8) on Apple TV+.