To claim the justice system may be flawed is not totally out of the question, and Apple TV+’s new drama, Black Bird, estimates that people slip through the cracks constantly. Back in the 90s, contamination of evidence and false imprisonment ran rampant, even as the FBI and crime-solving was practically in its infancy. How exactly can one admit to committing murderous crimes, yet get off completely scot-free after backtracking on these admissions? Black Bird is haunting because of its sinister possibilities. Can one ever really know what is going on in the mind of a neighbor, or a simple acquaintance? Bubbling just underneath the surface, there could be a monster carefully biding its time for the precise moment to pounce. Taron Egerton and Paul Walter Hauser deliver a masterclass in psychological drama, Black Bird.
Inspired by a true story, the first episode takes us back to 1996 Chicago. We find Jimmy (Taron Egerton, Rocketman, Kingsman: The Secret Service) attending to a kilo shortage in the drug empire he has helped create. It becomes clear as day that Jimmy isn’t the muscle of the operation. Rather, he prefers to live a life of luxury surrounded by protein shakes, money, guns, and gorgeous women while someone else does all the dirty work. After his home is raided, and Jimmy agrees to confess for a drastically reduced sentence due to the “sale of trafficking and narcotics,” Jimmy is given a whopping ten years in prison.
Jimmy’s dad, a terrific Ray Liotta in one of his final onscreen performances, insists that he “never wanted this for you.” As the son of a cop, Jimmy just tries to keep his head down and start doing his time. Seven months later, a spirited Agent McCauley (Sepideh Moafi, HBO’s The Deuce) makes Jimmy an offer too good to refuse. If Jimmy agrees to assimilate to a maximum security prison in order to befriend a suspected child killer, he will receive complete forgiveness of his sentence. The quiet Larry (Paul Walter Hauser, I, Tonya, Cruella) seems to be something of a serial confessor; thusly, Jimmy’s sole mission is to get Larry to relinquish the resting place of a victim so they can pin Larry down for good. In theory, this is a nearly impossible scenario. Making friends with a suspected killer is bad enough, but add in the looming horrors of a maximum security prison, and Jimmy is pretty much dead in the water.
Nevertheless, Jimmy agrees to help. With his father’s health declining, this is practically a no-brainer. From here, Black Bird switches back and forth between Jimmy’s efforts in prison to a committed investigator Brian Miller (Greg Kinnear, Stephen King’s The Stand, Little Miss Sunshine) on the outside trying to track Larry’s questionable life’s path to unearth further clues. Prison segments remain far more engaging than the activity on the outside, but Kinnear still does a fine job of making Miller into a solid character. The real meat and potatoes of the series lies in Jimmy’s efforts to infiltrate the inner sanctum of Larry. One episode juxtaposes the childhoods of both Jimmy and Larry against one another to further emphasize their drastically different upbringings. Jimmy may have had stability, but his parents constantly argued, and he was always trying to drown them out. On the other hand, Larry grew up the son of a gravedigger, and was interred into the family business without question, where an obsession with death and torture would have had room to flourish. Subsequent episodes peel the layers back further on both characters, exposing secrets and detail that a simple film would not have been able to capture. Around every bend, I was second-guessing myself as to Larry’s ultimate guilt or innocence.
I could watch Taron Egerton read the phone book for six episodes and never grow bored—he does an absolutely incredible job in Black Bird to the point that I wanted to rewatch his others works. While not quite as transformative a role as, say, Elton John in Rocketman, Black Bird provides a wonderful outlet for Egerton to play up his charisma. Long before he is approached with a very special mission, Egerton plays Jimmy as cocky and unwavering, sure of himself and even more certain he will emerge from this scenario completely unscathed. Once Paul Walter Houser’s Larry is added into the mix, the acting combination becomes irresistible. Dialogue between Larry and Jimmy is unnerving to say the least—explicit talk of underage sex chilled me to the bone. Rather than showing off grotesque imagery, Black Bird relies on snappy dialogue and storytelling that simmers with the raw power of telling rather than showing. This forces one to use their imagination, often arriving at a more grim conclusion than what would be portrayed onscreen.
As with the best of true crime, Black Bird gives viewers a look at photos of the real people who inspired this crazy tale, along with some nice text to tell us how they ended up. Clocking in at only six episodes, the miniseries makes for a terrific binge that unfurls the story with precision, and clings tightly to every intimate detail. In taking its time to unravel, every second of Black Bird races towards the answers to unknown truths, allowing the audience to make their own inferences about the true nature of Larry. It examines nature versus nurture and the justice system with an often critical lens. Who knew true crime could be this captivating?
Black Bird searches for the truth when it debuts exclusively to Apple TV+ on Friday, July 8th.