It has been weeks since I previewed the powerful miniseries “Black Bird,” and I’m still haunted by Paul Walter Hauser’s unnerving performance as a serial killer.
Hauser’s voice — I can still hear it — is squeaky and almost sing-songy as he plays Larry Hall, a man-child with Civil War muttonchops and glazed eyes. He’s a slippery guy who admits to murdering women — but in his dreams, he says, not in real life. The actor — from “Richard Jewell,” “Da Five Bloods,” and “I, Tonya” — has found the exact boyish vocal tone to trigger some deep willies, along with some deep thoughts about accountability, and he deserves plenty of award acknowledgement when the time comes.
I’d throw nominations at many other elements of this tense six-parter, too, from the tight writing — by Dennis Lehane, based on James Keene’s memoir “In With the Devil” — to the various directors who’ve helped to give it exactly the right pace. “Black Bird,” which premieres Friday on Apple TV+, is one of the few recent series that doesn’t distend into unnecessary episodes; it’s fleshed out but compact, brooding but not slow and indulgent, and crystal clear on its themes of redemption and the nature of criminality without being repetitive.
The outline of the story is that Jimmy Keene, played by a muscled-up Taron Egerton, gets busted for trafficking drugs and possessing illegal firearms, sending him to prison for 10 years. A smug womanizer and the entitled son of a former cop, Big Jim (Ray Liotta, in his last TV role), Jimmy is completely thrown by the sentence. Once inside a minimum-security prison, he manages to get by on his instincts until he is approached with a deal. He can get an early release if he goes into a high-security prison and obtains a solid confession from Hall, who’s about to walk free on appeal. It almost sounds like a TV-ized set-up, but unlike other Lehane-related stories such as “Gone, Baby, Gone” and “Mystic River,” it is based on true events.
The action toggles mostly between Jimmy on the inside and the investigators on the outside, including a shrewd FBI agent played by Sepideh Moafi and an earnest local sheriff played by Greg Kinnear. We watch Jimmy try to lure Larry into a friendship, subtly, so that Larry and the other convicts don’t suspect he is a rat. The officials have chosen Jimmy for the job because of his charm, his adaptability, and his ability to listen, and they have chosen well. Jimmy insinuates himself slowly but surely into Larry’s orbit, fashioning himself into a brother figure, to the point where the two begin sharing secrets. As Larry’s stories grow more explicit, you can see Jimmy straining not to reveal his disgust. He’s succeeding at his mission, it seems, but he’s not feeling much in the way of triumph.
The scenes between the two are among the strongest in the show, as they enable Lehane and Hauser to show us what’s going on inside this oddball of a killer — without ever asking for our sympathy. At moments, you wonder if Larry is indeed what his neighbors and the local cops think he is — a slow, harmless guy incapable of serial murder, his confessions merely a demented play for attention. But the longer you spend with him in the prison scenes, the more you see the menace and the chaos at play. Hauser walks the line between those two takes beautifully. As Larry’s modus becomes clearer, and we see how his thinking works and how he perceives women, I felt as though I was watching a new season of Netflix’s profiling opus, “Mindhunter,” which ended much too soon.
The dialogue is particularly sharp between Jimmy and Larry as they bond, and Egerton and Hauser deliver on all of the script’s promise, both in what they do and don’t say. Egerton is outstanding, balancing Jimmy’s macho bluster with his growing sense of consequence. In this satisfyingly human drama, he begins to see a way to be human.
Starring: Taron Egerton, Paul Walter Hauser, Greg Kinnear, Ray Liotta, Sepideh Moafi
On: Apple TV+. Premieres Friday