In the sea of true-crime series that have hit streaming services so far in 2022, Black Bird is a different kind of animal. And boy, can this bird fly. Taron Egerton turns in a powerhouse performance as Jimmy Keene, the drug-dealing son of a cop (Ray Liotta, in one of his final roles). In exchange for release from his 10-year prison sentence, Keene takes a deal from the FBI to infiltrate a maximum-security prison for mentally unstable inmates in order to help the feds nail down a suspected serial killer. But, before he could be released, Keene has to gain the trust of said serial killer, Larry Hall (a creepier than ever Paul Walter Hauser), and find out the location of the bodies of suspected victims.
It’s the top-notch performances that really make this series soar above the others in the true crime genre. Egerton is on point from minute one as the cocky, you’ll-never-catch-me-and-make-it-stick Keene. A smooth talker who has never met a stranger, Keene is smug and smirky up until the point he realizes what he thought would be a two-year sentence is actually 10 years – with no possibility of parole. At first, he scoffs at the FBI’s proposal, but once his father suffers a stroke and the fragility of life becomes very real, he changes his mind. Everything he is doing after that is in order to gain his freedom and spend more time with his ailing father.
Liotta is steely as ever, a hard-nosed ex-cop who feels that he failed his son. Every scene he in is powerful. You feel his emotion and his love for Jimmy, even if he tries to hide his fears behind a tough exterior. After his stroke, Liotta hits the stammering tone and frustration that comes along with a debilitating incident in a heartbreaking way. This performance shows why Liotta was an acting legend, and will be remembered as such for many years to come. There’s one moment in Episode 5 that’s just a few seconds, with Liotta sitting outside the prison where he knows his son is incarcerated, but he can’t visit him, or even talk on the phone. Not a word is said, but Liotta expresses so much with his eyes. It’s one of the show’s truly memorable moments, even though it lasts less than a minute.
Also turning in an outstanding performance is Sepideh Moafi, as FBI Agent Lauren McCauley. She’s the only woman in the series not completely charmed by Keene, and at the same time, she’s the driving force that’s keeping him safe. Or at least as safe as one can be in a penitentiary full of hardened, possibly insane violent criminals. She shows very little emotion and virtually no reaction to Keene’s suggestive comments, but you get the sense that there’s a lot she’s not sharing with the world surrounding her. It’s very much a boys’ club of a series, and as the sole female leading character, she’s tough, professional, and wholly admirable. McCauley works alongside Police Detective Brian Miller (Greg Kinnear), who’s trying to get Hall for the murder of 15-year-old Jessica Roach in Indiana.
And then there’s Hauser’s portrayal of Larry Hall. While Hall has a very soft, seemingly fragile voice, the things he says are so despicable and stomach-turning that you regret ever chuckling at anything he said, no matter how funny it may sound in that distinctive high-pitched voice. He is a menacing character, one who preys on young women and girls. His youngest known victim is 14, and the oldest is a college student. But he’s also a “serial confessor,” confessing to murders he couldn’t have committed and then being exonerated. That’s why Keene’s mission is so vital. Hall has an appeal coming up, and it’s likely he could be released to commit more heinous crimes in the future.
The cat and mouse game between Keene and Hall is the meat of the series, with the two lobbing between being the best of friends to not trusting one another beyond the site of their adjacent cells. Again, it’s the performances that keep the audience engaged. There are moments when you may start feeling anxiety for Keene, and in the next second, he laughing with Hall like they’re buddies out at the bar, not pulling janitorial duty in a federal prison. Egerton and Hauser switch back and forth between these moments with ease. Their performances both are nothing short of astounding.
In addition to Keene’s official secret mission, he’s got to keep himself alive in this prison, with a crooked guard and mafia figures also gunning for him. They know he was a drug dealer, so of course, they try to make a profit off that from the inside. These moments also lead to plenty of heart-pounding moments that make you wonder if Keene is going to make it out of this, after all. Again, Egerton walks the fine line between bravado and being scared to death at the same time. In quiet moments with no dialogue, his face shows the struggle and the fears going on inside this cocky man.
For a series that’s mostly set inside a very gray prison or 1990s law enforcement offices, there’s still plenty of action, even if it is mostly through flashbacks. When that dialogue and its delivery are so compelling, though, you barely notice the scenery. The story is based on true events that happened in 1994 and 1995, and the real Keene would go on to write a book about his experience inside the prison, called In With the Devil, which was the original name of the series as well. (Keene is an executive producer of the series, along with Egerton.)
With standout true-crime series like Under the Banner of Heaven, The Dropoutand The Staircase already making waves this year, you might think you’ll get burned out on the genre – but Black Bird offers something completely different. Though it’s not perfect – there are some flashbacks that seem a bit out of place – the style and tone, the suspense, and the powerful and emotional performances of Egerton, Hauser, and Liotta in particular, all join together to make Black Bird something truly special.
The first two episodes of Black Bird premiere on Apple TV + on July 8. Subsequent episodes will air each Friday through August 5.