What an interesting niche Paul Walter Hauser has carved out for himself. Whatever else he’s played as an actor, a universal character we might call “Person of Interest” dominates his resume.
From “Richard Jewell” and “I, Tonya” to his new series true crime series “Black Bird,” Hauser’s almost typecast as the seemingly slow, almost certainly “off” prime suspect in whatever crime is at the heart of the action.
With “Black Bird,” Hauser goes prime suspect tour de force as a twisted serial killer who may be in prison, but isn’t wholly trapped. Not yet, anyway. Not until somebody provides him the audience he craves. Hauser’s turn is over the top and stunning to behold.
This series, developed by “Mystic River/Gone Baby Gone/Shutter Island” novelist Dennis Lehane, is based on a prison inmate’s story of being coerced into getting details and perhaps even a confession from a probable serial killer fellow inmate.
With Taron Egerton as the high-rolling, drug-dealing son of a retired cop, Hauser as the suspect who may be released on appeal thanks to the nature of his confession, Sepideh Moafi (“The Deuce,” “The L Word: Generation Q”) as a short-tempered, desperate Fed and Greg Kinnear as an Illinois sheriff’s dept. detective who first puts the pieces of the case together, “Black Bird” becomes a taut, well-cast and beautifully structured limited series that pulls us in and doesn’t let go.
It’s damned good, with equal parts suspense and mystery, a tale told in flashbacks as the prospective “snitch” Jimmy Keene (Egerton) reads the case file on the guy — Larry Hall (Hauser) — law enforcement wants to keep off the street. The flashbacks later shift back to the damaged childhoods of the new prison chums as Keene tries to develop common ground through similar life experiences with a mass murderer.
As Keene’s cop-dad is played by Ray Liotta, in a moving, magnificent and wholly-committed final screen performance, that “We’re not that different” business doesn’t seem as far fetched as you might think.
Consider all the baggage this Hall fellow carries around with him, the simpler, slower twin (Jake McLaughlin plays the smarter, more handsome one), son of a gravedigger whose childhood was more ghoulish than you could imagine. He’s a professional custodian, expert at cleaning up any mess, from a murder scene or the possibly incriminating back of his Dodge van to the aftermath of a prison riot. He’s a Civil War reenactor, with the “Burnsides” to prove it and the marching ballad “We Are Coming, Father Ab’ram” from the war committed to memory.
But as our Fed and out intrepid local detective figure out, he pretty cunning for a guy who “had that look of somebody who’d never been loved or hugged.”
Hauser pitches his voice high and slow, in the M. Emmett Walsh range, for this character, a plainly-off and quietly paranoid man who practically has the run of Springfield (Federal) prison thanks to his mechanical skills and ability to clean anything.
“In my dreams, I kill women,” he confesses, which is all Det. Brian Miller (Kinnear, excellent) needs to be off and sniffing around.
Egerton bulked up from his “Rocket Man” babyfat to become the embodiment of a ’90s drug dealer on the rise — Dodge Viper, turtlenecks and sports jackets, catnip to every beautiful woman he meets, and not just because of his access to nose candy. Keene’s journey starts to resemble a breakdown as events, bad actors and circumstances close in on him stuck in one of the most dangerous places on Earth.
Alone? This guy is as alone as they get.
There are prison complications, blackmail and an aged big time Italian mobster to contend with and the ever-ticking clock as Hall and the Feds become more and more convinced he’s going to walk out a free man, their only hope a desperate-to-shorten-his-sentence coke dealer.
The villains pile up, and then, “The Lovely Bones” enter the picture — pathos from a victim, quite unexpected in light of the rising suspense of the prison scenes, full of treachery and doom.
Some of the best scenes are the early ones, Miller’s infuriating pushback from his fellow local cops who dismiss his suspicions because they’ve dismissed their own, and Agent McCauley’s “testing” taunting and grilling Keene to see if he’s up to the job of finding common ground with a monster.
“What DON’T you like about women,” she snaps, because what they want is a guy who can connect with a man who traps young women and girls and kills them.
Liotta brings a fading-fast father’s guilt to his few scenes as Big Jim, the cop father who feels responsible for letting his son get away from him and into this trouble, and probably is.
Crime or true-crime has proven itself the most durable genre for limited streaming series, with the built-in cliffhangers, stand-offs, red herrings, underworld or here, prison — beware when the place goes “Riot Quiet” — milieus, interrogations and investigations and police procedural tropes that build in a puzzle and a ticking clock into the proceedings.
“Ozark” and “The Night Of” to “Fargo” or “Black Bird,” you can never go far wrong when you start with awful crimes and unravel the mystery and horror of them, one episode at a time.
Rating: TV-MA, violence, drug content, sex, nudity and profanity
Cast: Taron Egerton, Paul Walter Hauser, Sepideh Moafi, Greg Kinnear, Christopher B. Duncan and Ray Liotta
Credits: Developed by Dennis Lehane from the memoir “In with the Devil” by James Keene and Hillel Levin. An Apple TV release.
Running time: 6 episodes @:59 each.