“Black Bird,” a new mini-series on Apple TV+ (premiering Friday) that dramatizes a creepy Midwestern true-crime story from the 1990s, has some significant names attached to it. It was developed for television by the top-flight crime writer Dennis Lehane (“The Wire,” “Mr. Mercedes”). Its nominal star, Taron Egerton (“Rocketman”), is a candidate to be Marvel’s next Wolverine. And, in a smaller role, it features one of the last performances by Ray Liotta, who died in May.
But from the moment Paul Walter Hauser appears onscreen as Larry Hall, a convicted kidnapper who is suspected of being a serial killer, everything else about “Black Bird” fades into the background. In “Richard Jewell,” Hauser was riveting as an oddball whose eccentricities obscured his intelligence and heroism his. Here he reverses the equation, using his extraordinary empathy and his idiosyncratic rhythms and shadings to draw us, helplessly, into the orbit of a deceptively gentle character whose violent psychopathy bubbles just below the surface.
Lehane, who wrote or co-wrote five of the six episodes, worked from a 2010 memoir, “In With the Devil,” by James Keene and Hillel Levin. Egerton plays Keene, a former high school football star who, when he was jailed for dealing drugs, was offered an out: His sentence would be commuted if he befriended Hall in federal prison and extracted information that would help defeat Hall’s appeal of his conviction for kidnapping a teenage girl, an appeal he looked likely to win.
Focusing the story on Keene (Egerton is listed first among the show’s 11 executive producers) bifurcates the narrative in a way that doesn’t do the show any favors. On one hand — and you can imagine that this is what attracted Lehane to the material — there ‘s a somewhat atypical prison-house drama, in which Keene needs to get to Hall before Keene ‘s status his as an undercover snitch is discovered and gets him killed. In this plotline, Keene jousts with an inquisitive guard (Joe Williamson), warily befriends the mobster Vincent Gigante (Tony Amendola) and tries to reassure his frantic ex-cop father his (Liotta).
On the other hand, there’s the more conventional true-crime story of Larry Hall, whose background as a gravedigger’s son and a janitor could help explain why he was never convicted of any of the many murders of which he was suspected, and why none of the bodies have been found. (He has even confessed to multiple murders over time, but he has always recanted.)
Hall’s story is fleshed out in flashbacks to his horrific childhood, and in the scenes of the frustrating investigation carried out by an implacable local cop (Greg Kinnear) and an FBI agent (Sepideh Moafi). But it’s mostly conveyed in the jailhouse encounters between Hall and Keene, and Hauser is so good in those scenes — so creepy and oddly funny, so believable and entirely present — that everything else in the show starts to feel pale and underwritten in comparison. When Hauser isn’t onscreen, you’re more likely to notice how tight and mannered Egerton’s performance is and how little he and Liotta are able to do with their shallowly drawn characters.
The not-so-revelatory ideas embedded in the story are that Keene, the smooth, good-looking high school jock, attracts Hall because he is what Hall always wanted to be, and that learning about Hall’s life and being drawn into his mind- set force Keene to rethink his own attitudes and privileges. But the disparity in the performances blurs all the emotional lines. When a prison therapist says that Keene is “very charismatic,” you’re liable to think, no, it’s Hall who’s charismatic (and to wonder why Hall doesn’t see through Keene immediately). It’s certainly intentional that Hauser’s Hall is a seductive character, but Lehane probably did n’t intend for our interest, and even our sympathies, to tilt so completely in his direction.
Despite that imbalance in the dramatic weight, “Black Bird” is mostly engaging — Hauser is onscreen a lot, and the production has a hushed quality, with occasional expressionistic touches, that is reminiscent of David Fincher’s crime stories. It’s at its best in the fourth episode, directed by Jim McKay (“Our Song”): Egerton is more relaxed, and Hauser even sharper than usual, and their scenes together have an almost sexual charge. And McKay’s depictions of a prison riot and the subsequent cleanup, meticulously supervised by Hall, are among the show’s best moments.
“Black Bird” closes with a view out an airplane window of the irregular grid of Midwestern farm country, below which lie the undiscovered bodies of the women who may have been Hall’s victims. We know that Hall has reimagined his childhood his there as an all-American idyll —“What a world it was, James, even living in a cemetery”— and Hauser, confoundingly and magically, makes us feel both the horror and the wonder of that delusion.