A taut true-crime tale, “Black Bird” delivers a tense and mostly compelling game of cat and mouse, finding a new avenue into the well-worn world of serial killers via a jailhouse informant desperate to uncover information to commute his sentence. Featuring one of the late Ray Liotta’s final performances, the result is a limited series that doesn’t neatly follow the traditional script.
Although Taron Egerton (“Rocketman,” “Kingsman”) plays the central role of Jimmy Keene, the suave drug dealer enlisted by prosecutors to help himself by helping them, the pivotal part belongs to Paul Walter Hauser (“Richard Jewell”) as Larry Hall, who the police had dismissed as a blowhard, not a murderer, despite his confessions to them.
Hall might be creepy and odd, but those qualities – from the Yosemite Sam facial hair to the way his voice trails off into high-pitched nothingness – explains why law enforcement hasn’t taken him seriously. Still, there appears to be a trail of missing girls behind his strange boasts, leaving shrewder investigators desperate to find tangible evidence that will keep him in prison, which is where Keene comes in.
Facing a long drug sentence, Keene is offered the chance to get out of prison if he can cozy up to Hall and earn his trust, forcing him to enter a dangerous lockup and try to befriend someone who is suspicious of any kindness.
Everything about Hauser’s performance makes Hall seem like an unlikely criminal mastermind. Yet he’s as cagey in sharing details as he is emotionally needy, qualities that Keene must work to exploit without giving himself away or getting killed first.
Produced by novelist Dennis Lehane, whose recent TV work included HBO’s Stephen King adaptation “The Outsider,” “Black Bird” is based on “In With The Devil: A Fallen Hero, A Serial Killer and a Dangerous Bargain for Redemption,” a book that Keene co-authored. Although much of the narrative unfolds in the prison, the strong cast includes Liotta in a smallish role as Jimmy’s father, Greg Kinnear as a detective frustrated by colleagues who have let Hall slide by and Sepideh Moafi as another cop and Keene’s principal contact.
The narrative actually starts slowly, but it takes on a growing sense of urgency and tension as Keene’s deadline to secure the kind of damning information that will tangibly connect Hall to the crimes nears. That includes Hall’s bizarre need to puff himself up by sharing vague details while Keene can’t appear too eager to wring them out of him as he struggles to hide his revulsion.
Premiering on Apple TV+, add “Black Bird” to the list of solid if not great serial-killer fare that requires getting into the minds of murderers, territory that the Netflix show “Mindhunter,” for one, exploited to good effect.
It’s another immersion course in the sordid underbelly of that genre, and one not-all-that-good guy’s willingness to crawl through that darkness in order to claw his way back into the light.
“Black Bird” premieres July 8 on Apple TV+. Disclosure: My wife works for a division of Apple.