Gary Raymond reviews Taron Egerton in Black Bird, the new star-studded Dennis Lehane thriller for AppleTV.
Cut through the “based-on-a-true story” clarion call, a tag as old as film itself (at least back to DW Griffith – the Welsh genius we’d all prefer to forget), and the elevator pitch for Black Bird must have been pretty mouth-watering. True Detective-meets-Escape at Dannemora. What the elevator pitch might not have pointed out is that the comparisons bisect this very watchable, slightly grim, slightly lightweight, slightly realist, slightly stylised punchy drama from one of the Hollywood writer/director/producers who does this sort of thing so well, Dennis Lehane. And on top of all these slight contradictions, Black Bird opens up like Guy Ritchie directing an episode of Miami Vice (part of me shudders at the thought, part of me is into the idea). Lehane is here doing this presumably because the story of a convicted felon striking a deal to commute his sentence by befriending a serial killer and coaxing the whereabouts of fourteen burial sites promises twists and turns the man who wrote Mystic River has made his name on. We are here, because the convicted felon is played by erstwhile Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards + Elton John and Anglesey/Aberystwyth boy Taron Egerton. As Jimmy Keane (on whose memoir, In with the Devil, Black Bird is based), Egerton is neither Eagle nor Elton, but rather is more smirking Love Island-buff high end drug smuggler in skin tight Armani and burnt orange Ferrari. He doesn’t start off as a very sympathetic character. Raided and convicted, our sympathies don’t really soften to him, but Egerton is there to be moulded, even if his impervious chin is going to take some chiselling.
The drama doesn’t really get going until we move to Indiana, and the ever-dependable Greg Kinnear, always the guy next door with a bit of grit beneath his surface when the tough gets going. He’s assigned the case of a dead teenage girl in a corn field, and some good solid police work – brilliantly paced and scripted – “bags him a serial killer”, as one befuddled FBI interrogator puts it when the truth is outed. These sequences of flashback with Kinnear’s investigation are so good it’s unfortunately something of a lull whenever we have to go forward a few years and watch Jimmy’s spiral into incarcerated oblivion. He is a scumbag, so why should we care?
Black Bird misses the trick that the best prison drama of recent years, Escape at Dannemora, managed to pull off so successfully by making its protagonists (Paul Dano and Benicio Del Toro) appear very human for eight hours before revealing the truly horrifying reasons for them being in the cells in the first place. That way, we were, to an extent, rooting for their escape. In Black Bird, Egerton is lost to us from the off. The show refers to his charms where I think they mean biceps, to his smarts when I think they mean good teeth. Well, on Love Island that may carry you through to the big prize, but in high end streaming drama nowadays you need a bit more to you.
Meanwhile, back in Indiana, the plodding procedures of Greg Kinnear’s Brian (yes, Brian: they did nothing to spruce up this character at all) is the crème-de-la-crème of sweat-patch detective drama. Kinnear isvery different to Matthew McConaughey or Woody Harrelson in the first season of True Detective but perhaps took the same hard boiled tenacity module in the same hot States detective school. His final coming together with Paul Walter Hauser’s killer is a masterclass in all the other classes everybody took to come together to make this television miniseries. Acting, directing, soundtrack, cinematography, lighting – it is all perfect. Hauser gives us as complex a serial killer as we’re likely to find, with winding dips of reality and fantasy, verbal ticks and dancing between confidence and fear. (Still, nothing quite comes as terrifying in Black Bird as the amount of mustard Sepideh Moafi’s FBI Agent Lauren McCauley puts on her burger).
Egerton’s Jimmy has to up his game if he’s to steal the show, but perhaps that chin and those abs are there to provide some ballast to all the other stuff vying for our attention. Black Bird is on AppleTV, with new episodes up every Friday. The last decade has created in me a creature that survives on binges alone, but for this, with the expertise of Lehane as guide rope, and a supreme cast that includes the late great Ray Liotta as Jimmy’s dad, the slow burn of waiting for True Detective and Escape from Dannemora to collide is undeniably worth it.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, and broadcaster, and is executive editor of Wales Arts Review.