Friday, January 10, 2020

The Outsider: HBO Adapts Stephen King

DNA evidence has been widely hailed as a tool to exonerate the wrongly convicted. However, in Terry Maitland’s case, it falsely implicates him in a horrific child murder. He will need someone who can think way outside the box to prove his innocence. Holly Gibney from the Mr. Mercedes books and TV series is certainly an unconventional investigator. She sees things others miss, so she might be the perfect detective to stalk the real killer in The Outsider, Richard Price’s 10-part adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, which premieres this Sunday on HBO.

Terry Maitland is a well-liked teacher and coach in his quiet, working-class Oklahoma community, until Det. Ralph Anderson has him arrested and cuffed during one of his little league games for the murder of eleven-year-old Frank Peterson. There is ironclad DNA and eye-witness testimony linking Maitland to the crime scene, but his lawyer, Howie Gold, quickly uncovers physical evidence and video footage placing him in another city at the time of the murder.

It is all quite baffling to everyone, so Gold retains Gibney’s specialized services. Feeling guilty for turning the town against the Maitland family, Det. Anderson joins Gold’s investigation team while on leave from the department. He is not inclined to believe the fantastical, even when Gibney uncovers a string of similar child murders attributed to suspects still proclaiming their innocence, due to similarly conflicting DNA evidence and eye-witness statements. However, his wife Jeannie is more willing to reserve judgment and keep an open mind. She too joins Gold’s kitchen cabinet, after forging a sympathetic understanding with Maitland’s wife, Marcy.

Based on the first six episodes provided to the press (out of ten), it should be safe to say the serial killer at work boasts some sort of supernatural shape-and-DNA-shifting powers—and that shouldn’t be particularly spoilery, since it is a creation of Stephen King. However, the series unfolds with the style and drive of a procedural mystery. Indeed, comparisons to HBO’s True Detective are rather apt. Yet, Price fully capitalizes on the existential implications of a monster that (perhaps literally) feeds on human alienation and misery. These are especially damaged characters, even by the standards of King’s oeuvre.

Jason Bateman’s earnest everyman portrayal of Maitland easily convinces viewers to buy into the character’s predicament, sort of like Henry Fonda in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man taking a detour through the X-Files. Yet, perhaps more importantly, he effectively sets the vibe of mounting dread as the director of the first two episodes. However, Ben Mendelsohn surpasses him when it comes to projecting world-weary angst as Det. Anderson, whose every decision is influenced by the prior death of his own young son.

The Outsider also earns credit for featuring three women characters, who transcend stereotypes and become of equal or greater importance to the story than Maitland or even Anderson. Cynthia Erivo never resorts to cheap ticks or shtick in her endlessly intriguing portrayal of the on-the-spectrum Gibney (radically different from Justine Lupe’s depiction in the Mr. Mercedes series). It showcases her brilliance, a la Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, but also emphasizes her acute vulnerability. Yet, Price also empowers her as a woman, who haltingly explores the possibility of romance with a former law enforcement contact, nicely played by Derek Cecil.

Likewise, Mare Winningham and Julianne Nicholson are consistently devastating as Jeannie Anderson and Marcy Maitland, respectively—two women ironically united in grief. Each woman displays unexpected agency, beyond merely standing by their men. In fact, Nicholson could arguably be considered the Outsider’s lead and central POV figure.

Bill Camp adds some welcome color and attitude as Gold, the kind of shrewd attorney you would want representing you if you ever found yourself in the Maitlands’ position. Marc Menchaca is also entertaining to watch getting all sorts of twitchy and freaked out as Anderson’s compromised colleague, Jack Hoskins. However, Award-winning thesp Paddy Considine is thus far strangely under-employed playing strip club bouncer Claude Bolton, but his later importance in subsequent episodes is clearly implied.

Nobody is safe in The Outsider, as we learn from the first big twist at the end of episode two. That cranks up the tension and the stakes, right from the start. Price and the battery of directors, including Karyn Kusama (who last helmed Destroyer, starring Nicole Kidman), nicely balance suspense with a deeply humanistic examination of the grieving process. It is scary, tapping into some seriously archetypal nightmares, but it is also quite compelling to watch Gibney and Anderson apply their mortal investigational techniques to a decidedly preternatural predator. Highly recommended (based on the first six installments), The Outsider premieres this Sunday (1/12), with special back-to-back episodes, on HBO.

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