two actors face each other intently in a still showing a scene from a prison drama series
Paul Walter Hauser and Taron Egerton in “Black Bird" (Image Credit: Apple TV+ Press).

Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.

There’s a moment early in “Black Bird,” a six-episode streaming series about tricking a serial killer into confessing his crimes, that will resonate with anyone who’s spent time around cornfields. There’s something calming about the cornfield, with its defined rows of stalks and modest paths through green and gold. A cornfield is as orderly a crop as can be grown.

But there’s also something claustrophobic about a cornfield. When the corn has grown tall enough, you can walk through the field but you can’t see what’s in the next row. There’s a reason corn mazes are popular in the Midwest in the fall: It’s easy to get lost in their wind-rustled thickness — and so, of course, cornfields are a common locale for scary stories and horror movies too.

Greg Kinnear as Brian Miller at the crime scene in ‘Black Bird’ (2022) (Credit: AppleTV+ via IMDb).

Killer in the Corn

In “Black Bird,” which is primarily set in Illinois and my home state of Indiana in the 1990s, what gets lost in the cornfield is a girl, her body found abandoned in a field by her killer.

The image of the girl’s broken body is horrible. For me, it instantly brought to mind my experience as a newspaper reporter, when I would see the bodies of murder victims over the years. One in particular, a woman found in January 1992, between a field and a rural highway in Delaware County, Indiana, had been killed and discarded, just like the girl at the beginning of “Black Bird.” It is a sight I will never forget.

In the Apple TV+ series, created by author Dennis Lehane, the discovery of the girl kicks into motion an investigation that police hope will end with the arrest of suspected serial killer Lawrence “Larry” Hall (played by Paul Walter Hauser). Hall is quickly identified as a likely killer working along the lonely country backroads of the two Midwestern states. Greg Kinnear plays Brian Miller, a county police detective determined to connect Hall to several killings.

But there’s a twist to this story, which is based on a real-life investigation: To pin a series of murders on Hall, the police need someone inside the prison where Hall is doing time, to gain his confidence and get him to confess without the elaboration, outright lies and backtracking that have marked Hall’s dealings with police.

Enter James “Jimmy” Keene Jr. (Taron Egerton), serving prison time for a drug conviction. If Keene will agree to be transferred to the maximum security prison where Hall is incarcerated, authorities say, they’ll shave years off his sentence. It’s a promise that becomes more important to Keene after his father’s health worsens. Ray Liotta plays James “Big Jim” Keene and he’s both a lifeline for his son and, unwittingly, the reason his son is in a much more dangerous setting, surrounded by murderers and other hardened criminals.

YouTube video
An official trailer for ‘Black Bird’ (via Apple TV on YouTube).

Case Files

The series is based on the real Jimmy Keene’s book (co-authored by Hillel Levin), “In With the Devil: A Fallen Hero, a Serial Killer and a Dangerous Bargain for Redemption,” and it’s adapted here by Lehane, one of the best crime writers of all time and author of books like “Mystic River,” “Shutter Island,” and the Kenzie and Gennaro Boston P.I. novels.

I’ve read everything by Lehane and he doesn’t usually set his stories in rural areas, preferring to concentrate on cities like Boston, an environment he knows well. He wrote most of the six episodes here and seems to have a feel for a more lonely set of locations: small cities, the country roads between them, and the prison holding Hall and Keene, a place simultaneously crowded and isolating.

Those few locales carry a lot of weight, but the prison scenes subvert prison story cliches. Sure, there’s the typical brutality of guard-on-inmate and inmate-on-inmate violence, but there’s also a scene like I’ve never seen before. After inmates riot, Jimmy — his mission to get Larry to trust him — gets Larry to talk about himself as the two help clean up the wrecked mess hall.

Paul Walter Hauser as Larry Hall in ‘Black Bird’ (2022) (Credit: AppleTV+ via IMDb).

Larry seems — and is — emotionally and mentally impaired, but there’s a cunning to him too, as he manipulates Jimmy by edging up to and then stepping back from revealing his crimes. The talks between the two are incredibly chilling, as Larry talks about his pathological desires and Jimmy tries to hide his repugnance so Larry will keep talking.

The performances are outstanding but Hauser in particular will absolutely raise the hair on the back of your neck as Hall. This is strong stuff here, so be warned.

By the way, something must be said about “Black Bird” as some of the final work of Ray Liotta, so good as Big Jim. Liotta, who died in May 2022, a few weeks before the series started streaming, wears his age and weariness like a heavy coat, but there’s never a moment when he’s less than riveting.

Ray Liotta as Big Jim Keene in “Hand to Mouth” (2022) (Credit: AppleTV+ via IMDb).

It’s hard to imagine on a sunny day, but isolated farm fields and little-traveled country roads can have a sinister feel. “Black Bird” ably demonstrates that an open cornfield and a confined prison cell, for all their differences, can both prove equally stifling and spine-tingling.

Black Bird is streaming on Apple TV+.

Keith Roysdon is a retired newspaper reporter and editor who moved from Indiana to Tennessee and works as a freelance writer. He’s co-authored four true crime books, including “The Westside Park Murders,” which was named Best Nonfiction Book of 2021 by the Indiana Society of Professional Journalists. He writes news and pop culture commentary as well as fiction. His Tennessee-set crime novel “Seven Angels” was awarded the 2021 Hugh Holton Award for Best Unpublished Novel from Mystery Writers of America Midwest.

This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.

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