Taron Egerton Gives the Best Performance of His Career in ‘Black Bird’

·6 min read
Apple TV+
Apple TV+

Despite major roles in big-budget films like Rocketman and the Kingsman franchise and an amiable British charm, Taron Egerton’s star has remained on a slow rise stateside. But it only takes one glimpse of Egerton strutting with a smarmy confidence and cocky smirk in Black Bird, the surprisingly excellent new Apple TV+ limited series, to become putty in his hands.

That charisma is not just essential to Egerton’s role in Black Bird; the series hinges on it. The adaptation is based on the true story of James Keene, a drug kingpin sentenced to ten years in prison who strikes a deal with the FBI to have his time commuted if he can elicit a confession from a serial killer. By taking a fairly standard prison and police procedural story and resting it on Egerton’s broad shoulders, Black Bird manages to keep from falling between the overstuffed couch cushions of streaming content.

Developed by author Dennis Lehane, who wrote the Mystic River and Shutter Island novels, Black Bird explores the ways that arrogant masculinity functions as currency in the corrupt policing and carceral systems.

James Keene—Jimmy, to just about everyone he knows—grew up as the star athlete in a mid-sized town outside of Chicago. The son of an absent father who was a police officer, Jimmy parlayed a tumultuous childhood into four scholarship offers—before giving it all up to run drugs. When the law eventually catches up with him, the prosecutor makes an example of Jimmy, landing him a max sentence of a decade behind bars.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Apple TV+</div>
Apple TV+

After spending his early life being made to feel small by his father’s absence and his step-father’s abuse, the greatest joy of his adulthood had been walking around like a god, equally adored and feared by everyone he met. The prison system threatens to level him out. But after so much time spent learning how to manipulate those around him, he quickly has the rest of the prison in his pocket.

Jimmy’s magnetism and wit have kept him in the sights of the FBI, particularly Special Agent Laura McCauley (Sepideh Moafi), who busted Jimmy for his drug charge and hopes to use the allure she saw in him to the bureau’s advantage. Agent McCauley offers Jimmy a full commutation of his sentence if he agrees to be transferred to a maximum security prison to cozy up to Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser), a suspected serial killer, to gain his trust and extract a confession.

Jimmy may value his freedom, but it’s worth nothing to him if he might have to sacrifice his life to get it. The unpredictability of the mission proves to be a bigger detractor than having to spend a decade behind bars. But when Jimmy’s father, Big Jim (Ray Liotta), suffers a stroke brought on by the stress of his son’s prison sentence shortly after the two reconnect, Jimmy grits his thousand-watt smile and decides to take the deal.

There is a catch. Larry Hall is in jail on a technicality, and he’s on track to win an appeal and walk back into the world to possibly kill again. If Jimmy misses the chance to get a confession, he’ll serve his entire sentence and risks losing his father before he gains his freedom.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Apple TV+</div>
Apple TV+

In his final television role, Ray Liotta commands every scene he’s in with a marvelous emotional vulnerability that, as it so often did in his storied career, cuts through a hardened exterior.

Big Jim’s greatest fear as a father was screwing up his child, but he spent his life too emotionally blocked by the farce of masculinity to show his son the love he needed to avoid that fate. His regrets come too late in life, and the weight of them is crushing—mentally, physically, and emotionally. Jimmy is still working to understand that, balancing a misguided idolization of his father with the image of him degenerating before his eyes through the barriers of prison glass.

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But the performance that will leave audiences as stunned as they are nauseous is courtesy of Paul Walter Hauser as Larry Hall. After garnering awards attention for playing the titular role in 2019’s Richard Jewell, Hauser brings the bones of that character’s memorable neuroses to Black Bird and twisting them into something much darker altogether.

Hauser’s turn as Larry is one of the single most ghoulish performances in recent memory, in television or film. His ability to instantly flip an air of unassuming gullibility and dopey mannerisms into a wicked one should easily secure him an Emmy nomination—that is, if the Television Academy can bring themselves to think about it any longer than they have to.

I’d be just as fine never seeing Hauser’s Larry Hall again in my life. And I mean that as a genuine compliment. But damn, can someone check on Hauser after this? Is he OK? Is he in therapy? I’ll need a verbal confirmation.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Apple TV+</div>
Apple TV+

And, of course, there’s Taron Egerton, who commands the camera with a confident stride and shoulders so wide they fill the entire frame. I’d be remiss not to mention just how bafflingly good-looking he is in this series. Egerton’s lead-pipe arms and rock-hard jawline seem sculpted by the gods and do a good amount of the work securing him Jimmy Keene’s apparent charms, but he’s also fantastic in the role. He’s got a considerable presence that extends past his seemingly gargantuan physical stature, and the varied emotional chops to carry a sizable story like this.

As the series continues and Jimmy becomes further entrenched in the prison’s ecosystem, Egerton convincingly portrays Jimmy’s fears of being found out as a snitch and his perpetual desperation to make it out alive. He wears both masks, exchanging one for the other with the pace of someone who understands that the only ticket to their freedom is their ability to hold up a lie against a killer who does it for a living. The raw tension between Egerton and Hauser is haunting.

When Jimmy uses his disarming allure to get so close to a monster, something unexpected happens. The depraved energy that radiates from Larry’s every move begins to wear Jimmy down. All of the walls he’s built to protect himself throughout his life, all of the glaring white of his smile designed to ward off anyone who could hurt him, starts to wear away.

In the face of truly sinister acts, Jimmy understands his place in the world more clearly, finally seeing outside himself for once. Jimmy observes how his and Larry’s mutual, aching desire to be seen can manifest itself with gruesome results. It’s these moments where Black Bird is its most profoundly affecting. It’s the best acting work that Egerton has ever done.

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