The defining trait of true crime, as the name suggests, is its proximity to real life. Even when its stories are scripted, as they often have been lately, the genre always comes connected to the world we live in.
That’s especially true of Black Bird, if not for the reasons initially intended. The new Apple TV+ series, which debuts the first two of an eventual six episodes this Friday, adapts the memoir of James “Jimmy” Keene, an ex-convict once recruited to extract a confession from an alleged serial killer. (Keene himself serves as an executive producer.) Both Keene—played by Taron Egerton, doing a very different kind of impression than his turn as Elton John in Rocketman—and his target Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser) are real people. But it’s likely some viewers will tune in because they’re drawn to a different factual figure: that of Ray Liotta, the recently deceased actor who plays Keene’s father.
Black Bird is Liotta’s first posthumous role. It won’t be his last, though it seems safe to assume Elizabeth Banks’s Cocaine Bear will strike a lighter tone. Black Bird, by contrast, is aptly elegiac. Throughout the series, Liotta is physically marooned from the main action, which largely takes place behind bars. But on a show about masculinity, his role proves central to how Black Bird explores its core themes of violence, sex, and socialization. And as a character with a potentially critical health condition coming to terms with his legacy, Liotta offers a kind of catharsis to those still mourning his sudden loss. The third episode of Black Bird is dedicated to the late performer, though his presence is felt throughout.
Developed by the crime writer Dennis Lehane, a novelist recruited into TV by The Wire’s David Simon, Black Bird is worth watching for reasons beyond its high-profile casting. Those reasons may require some patience of true crime skeptics to come into focus. Keene’s story touches on some of the field’s hoariest clichés: sexual predation; primordial evil; victims who are largely young, female, and white. (This isn’t to deny the tragedy of such cases—only to point out that there’s a specific kind of atrocity that tends to earn the mass media’s attention, painting a misleading portrait of what crime actually looks like.) Given that the subtitle of Keene’s book bills him as a “fallen hero,” Black Bird could easily make its main relationship a study in contrasts: hero versus villain; good versus evil; Black versus white.
Instead, Lehane cultivates his two main characters into complementary foils. A Chicago drug dealer sentenced to 10 years on a gun charge, Keene takes the district attorney up on an offer he can’t refuse: embedding in a Missouri prison to endear himself to Hall, whose conviction is being appealed. A former janitor and Civil War reenactor, Hall had previously confessed to the murder of Indiana college student Tricia Reitler, one of many recent disappearances across the Midwest. But his lawyer later argued the confession was coerced, forcing the prosecution to dig for new evidence to keep Hall behind bars. The hope is that Keene, a smooth-talking charmer, can extract some incriminating intel—possibly the location of the victims’ bodies, none of which were ever found. If he does, he’ll have his sentence commuted.
It’s not your standard job, and the questions FBI agent Lauren McCauley (Sepideh Moafi) poses to Keene during prep are not from your standard interview. “What do you like about women?” she asks. “What don’t you like about women? What do you think Larry Hall doesn’t like about women?” The exchange is an early indication of what truly interests Lehane about the interplay between his two leads. At first glance, the two are polar opposites: Keene is a former football star turned charismatic womanizer; Hall is awkward and shy, his alleged malice belied by an almost childlike demeanor. The more they talk, though, the more they bond over their shared love of the chase. Hall and Keene may pursue different kinds of conquests, but they’re both undeniably skilled at the hunt.
This is where Liotta comes in. “Big Jim,” as he’s known, is a retired Chicago cop. We’re made to understand his time on the force was spent wrapped up in the city’s notoriously corrupt political machine. Jimmy the younger idolized his father, then modeled himself after him: a pillar of the community who operates decidedly off-book. (He also took his namesake’s side in his parents’ contentious divorce.) Given where that path has led him, it’s an influence Big Jimmy has come to regret. “All I ever do is fuck you up,” he sighs. There are also more direct links to his son’s present situation: Keene only takes on the Hall mission after Big Jimmy suffers a stroke, hoping to make the most of their limited time together.
Hall, unsurprisingly, has a more fraught—if equally formative—connection with his dad, an undertaker who may or may not have imparted the skills required to bury more than a dozen corpses without a trace. Fathers are just one of the topics he and Keene touch on in their wide-ranging chats. Sex is another, as standard locker-room talk gives rise to some hair-raising brags by Hall. The question is whether he’s telling the truth or just trying to show off for his new friend. “Dudes try to impress other dudes with stories that make them look bigger than they are,” Keene observes.
Starting with his breakout as a dimwitted henchman in I, Tonya, Hauser has played so-called bad guys before. But they’ve always been variations of the incompetent, often likeable buffoon—villains, but of the Disney variety. (Literally, in the case of Cruella.) Here, he’s something much scarier. Hall isn’t a mastermind, hence the initial confession. Instead, he combines the guilelessness Hauser is so skilled at projecting with an undisguised id. It’s implied Hall has some kind of developmental disability, one that leaves him unable to distinguish between dreams and reality or take social cues when someone, usually a girl, doesn’t want to talk. In pairing him with Keene, Lehane suggests his evil isn’t unique. It’s just less repressed or refined than more everyday forms of misogyny.
Hauser and Liotta never share a scene in Black Bird, but their performances are indirectly in dialogue. Lehane and director Michäel R. Roskam use a propulsive thriller plot as an anchor for more abstract ideas about homosocial ties—what men teach and model for each other, within and across generations. They largely succeed, though Black Bird suffers from the same distension as many miniseries that might otherwise be movies at a different time in Hollywood history. Black Bird deals with a lurid subject, and may earn attention from macabre circumstances outside its control. But it handles its material with sensitivity and care, rendering a nuanced tale out of grim brutality.