It’s safe to say that David Fincher is the king of crafting true and fictional crime dramas, right? He is the gold standard of the genre. He has done “Se7en”, “Zodiac,” “The Social Network” (it’s a crime drama based on the current revelations about Mark Zuckerberg and how Fincher frames him as a psychopath), “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Gone Girl,” and, of course, “Mindhunter.” Especially “Mindhunter” because it gave us an intimate, albeit dramatized, look into the disturbing and frightening minds of serial killers and how they can be cracked. The only thing that comes close to inciting those kinds of sentiments are documentaries (but that’s largely because of their proximity to reality). Now, “Black Bird” certainly takes notes from Fincher’s guidebook and is a deep character study of Jimmy Keene and Larry Hall. But is it effective? Well, let’s find out.
“Black Bird,” developed by Dennis Lehane and directed by Michael R. Roskam, Joe Chappelle, and Jim McKay, is based on James Keene’s autobiographical novel, “In With The Devil: A Fallen Hero, A Serial Killer, and A Dangerous Bargain for Redemption.” It follows Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton), who is a businessman, drug dealer, ladies’ man, and the son of ex-cop James “Big Jim” Keene. He is arrested for dealing drugs and the possession of illegal arms and sent to prison. Simultaneously, FBI officers Lauren McCauley (Sepideh Moafi) and Brian Miller (Greg Kinnear) are investigating the murder of Jessica Roach (Laney Stiebing) by Larry Hill (Paul Walter Hauser), allegedly. Since Jimmy isn’t very keen on serving the entirety of his 10-year-long sentence, he is given the chance to extract a confession from Larry. But, no one other than the jail’s psychiatrist and warden can know about Jimmy’s mission, especially not Larry.
“Black Bird” tackles a bunch of topics: nature versus nurture, redemption through acts of justice, and unlocking the layers behind which serial killers hide their true intentions. Out of all this, surprisingly, the nature versus nurture aspect turns out to be the most prominent. Because you think the highlight is going to be about getting the confession, which it is. But more than that, a great deal of emphasis is put on Jimmy and Larry’s pasts; how they were brought up by their respective fathers; their relationship with their respective mothers; how they treated women; and whether or not their vices were enabled by people around them. None of that is used to justify either of their actions. In fact, Sammy Keene (Robyn Malcolm) explicitly states that nobody puts a gun to one’s head and forces them to do such criminal stuff. They make the choice, somewhere down the line, and run with it, and nobody but the perpetrator is at fault.
This review of Jimmy and Larry’s respective pasts almost blends seamlessly into the road to redemption (for Jimmy, not for Larry) and lines up the confession with the findings of the murder investigation. I say “almost” because, on paper, it works. That said, the execution falls a little flat. To be specific, the urgency of the murder investigation doesn’t match the intensity of Jimmy and Larry’s conversations within the walls of the prison. The investigation is intentionally slow-paced because the showrunners want the audience to feel that the solution is right there, inside Larry’s mind, and yet it’s inaccessible. However, the cyclical nature of that sub-plot gets boring after a while. You can even say that the build-up to Larry’s confession is very surface level. It doesn’t get interesting until the last two episodes, thereby making the previous episodes feel like fillers. There’s also a bunch of random stuff thrown in there involving a correctional officer, a mob boss, a riot, and other things that don’t go anywhere and make “Black Bird” feel bloated.
From a technical standpoint, “Black Bird” is competently made. Since it’s a period piece, attention to detail is of utmost importance, and you can see it in everything, from the costume design (Amy Roth) to the production design (Charisse Cardenas), art direction (Fernando Carrion), make-up design (Nana Fischer), and the cadence with which each of the actors talks. There’s not a single frame in this six-hour-long show that is inadequately lit. Every single scene looks perfect and conveys the mood of the story visually. Kudos to cinematographer Natalie Kingston. Editors Jonathan Alberts and Rob Bonz keep the viewing experience engaging. It’s in the final episode, when Jimmy has a nightmare, that they get to be a little crazy and give you the feeling of being trapped in Jimmy’s mind. And it is undoubtedly frightening. I wish the show had more of that to truly give us a taste of Jimmy and Larry’s minds. But, hey, we have to make do with what we have instead of wishing for what we want.
The acting department is unequivocally great. The late Ray Liotta was fantastic. The wide array of internal and external complications he manages to exhibit, while being so vulnerable, is a delight to watch. His chemistry with Robyn Malcolm and Taron Egerton is so natural. Greg Kinnear is such an under-appreciated actor, isn’t he? The man slips into every role he gets and nails it. Sepideh Moafi is magnetic from her first frame to the last. The command she has in every scene she’s in, without doing anything over-the-top, is remarkable. In addition to them, Jake McLaughlin, Robert Wisdom, Joe Williamson, Carlo Albán, Tony Amendola, and everyone else who you see on the screen for one-to-20 minutes is great. But, Egerton and Paul Walter Hauser are the poster boys of “Black Bird,” and they earn the hell out of that spot. Both of them physically and psychologically transform into their respective roles and play off of each other so beautifully. As mentioned before, the stuff they do in the last two episodes is genuinely masterful.
In conclusion, “Black Bird” could’ve just been a super focused, bordering on surreal, nightmarish imagery and conversation-heavy movie. Yes, mini-series and shows are all the rage right now. But everything doesn’t need to be one just because it is trendy. Sometimes you have to understand what works best while dealing with the subject material. The six hours don’t feel heavy, particularly while watching. However, when you sit and think about it, you start to notice the number of unnecessary subplots and story beats plaguing the mini-series. You do get to watch talented actors like Taron Egerton, Ray Liotta, Paul Walter Hauser, Greg Kinnear, and Sepideh Moafi for six hours, though. So, that’s a plus point, if we are still counting. Will I recommend watching it? Absolutely. And then go watch “Mindhunter,” maybe, or “Goodfellas,” “Hannibal,” “Narc,” “Identity,” “Revolver,” “Smokin’ Aces,” “Killing Them Softly,” and “The Many Saints of Newark” to remember the great Ray Liotta.