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[KING'S CORNER] The Outsider (2020)

The Outsider - King's Corner Review


Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the Film and TV adaptations of Stephen King's novels, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.


Director: Andrew Bernstein, Jason Bateman, Charlotte Brändström, J.D. Dillard, Karyn Kusama, Igor Martinovic, Daina Reid

Starring: Ben Mendelsohn, Jason Bateman, Jeremy Bobb, Mare Winningham, Cynthia Erivo, Paddy Considine


Written by: Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, Jesse Nickson-Lopez

Produced by: Richard Price, Ben Mendelsohn, David Auge, Katharine Werner

Cinematography by: Kevin McKnight, Zak Mulligan, Rasmus Heise, Igor Martinovic

Original Score by: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans


Synopsis:

When an insidious supernatural force edges its way into a seemingly straightforward investigation into the gruesome murder of a young boy, it leads a seasoned cop and an unorthodox investigator to question everything they believe in.


The Outsider Review

Thoughts:

There is no doubt that throughout his illustrious career Stephen King's work has been directly and indirectly influenced by one of horror's greatest writers of Gothic literature, Edgar Allan Poe. In terms of setting, 'The Shining' can be considered to be a modern take on 'The Masque of Red Death'. His novella 'Dolan's Cadillac' is more or less a modern retelling of 'The Cask of Amontillado' only with a mobster twist. The most obvious is his short story 'The Old Dude's Ticker' which is basically 'The Tell-Tale Heart' set during the Vietnam War era. King has been very open about his admiration of the renowned writer as he thinks his works are wonderful and are just as readable now as they were when he was a teenager. The influence of Poe even extended as far as his 2018 novel, 'The Outsider'. 



In an interview with CBS This Morning in 2018 King said he was partly inspired by the Poe story 'William Wilson'. He said, "...what would a story be like if the evidence that somebody committed a horrible crime was ironclad. But if the evidence that the person had a perfect alibi, what if that was ironclad? You know, kind of an immovable object, an irresistible force." This forms the basis for 'The Outsider', the story of a man (who is a cornerstone of his community) being dead to rights over committing an unspeakable crime even though there is clear evidence to suggest he wasn't in the same town when it happened. This inexplicable set of circumstances sees a veteran cop team up with an unorthodox private investigator to get to the bottom of the case only to uncover something beyond their belief. 


The novel was released in May 2018 and within a month it was announced to be adapted into a series with Richard Price acting as showrunner. By the end of the year it was picked up by HBO and they commissioned a series to be made. This quick turnaround was down to the mammoth success of Andy Muschietti's 'IT Chapter One' the previous year making King's work a hot property for adaptation again. The hiring of Ben Mendelsohn as the lead in the show alongside Jason Batemen in a supporting role (as well as director of two episodes and executive producer) meant that the ten episode series was well underway. 


Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo in The Outsider

Right from the opening shot you are immersed in the grief ridden world of the show as we discover the mutilated corpse of 11 year old boy, Frankie Peterson. From the slow pan camera movements and desaturated imagery you instantly know what kind of a show you are in for before a single word is spoken. From here the sorrow grows as a whole community is devastated by this single unthinkable act of violence and how the main suspect, Terry Maitland (played by Jason Bateman), an upstanding member of the community could have done something like this. This runs throughout the entire show with the various directors including the likes of Jason Bateman and Karyn Kusama utilising a number of wide shots with actors off to the left or right of the screen with lots of open space signifying their detachment from each other and from how something like this could happen. Alongside the likes of 'Lisey's Story' it is the prime example of how when given the prestige TV treatment, King's work can be given some breathing room in being allowed to delve into the inner emotions of character visually in the same kind of masterful manner in which King does with the inner monologues of his characters in his writing. 



Whilst the evidence including DNA and eye witness accounts point directly to Terry as Frankie Peterson's murderer, there is just as strong conflicting evidence that puts him in another town at the time of the murder setting off the central mystery of the story. This setup and the aftermath of Terry's arrest form the basis for the first two episodes of the miniseries and are probably the show at its strongest (with Bateman behind the camera). The way he portrays the fabric of the community being torn apart is masterful and Bateman in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter spoke of how he wanted to align the feeling of dread and impending doom from Kubrick's 'The Shining'. You can certainly see the parallels with the striking imagery and atmosphere he puts on camera that is woven throughout the show. It is a template that is replicated by the various directors working on the show but never better than in these opening episodes. 



The central mystery of the show certainly tries to carry over much of the tension of the book, especially when we discover that there is something supernatural at work. The manner in which this sets up a race against time on paper would make for a riveting show but showrunner Richard Price takes a step back with this kind of approach opting to focus more on character development beyond the pages of King. In doing so he creates an imbalance between character and plot progression as some episodes feel like they are spinning their wheels with unnecessary scenes like the kidnapping of Holly or the backstory of the caves where the titular shapeshifter (known as El Coco) is dwelling. In an interview with Variety in 2020 Price talks about how in adapting the book he didn't want to slow things down to nullify the tempo and tension of the novel which is evident in the opening episodes but as the show progresses it goes against this intention as the overall series feels at least two episodes longer than it should be. 


As with the novel, detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) is the main character of the show. Even before Frankie Peterson's murder, Ralph is a world weary cynic in denial of his depression caused by the death of his son. Given his history and the initial stone cold evidence pointing to Terry's guilt, the public dressing down he gives him through his arrest only exacerbates the situation when the contradictory evidence comes into play. When Holly suggests something supernatural is at play he is initially dismissive of it as he is devoid of faith or belief in anything beyond what he can see. This description is etched all over the face of Ben Mendelsohn who is terrific in the role. His sullen and exasperated approach to the role is a culmination of what the show is all about, grief and the inability to grant oneself closure. For the most part he has built up an emotional wall around himself which only truly gets chipped away in conversations with his wife Jeannie (played brilliantly by Mare Winningham). They have managed to live with (but not quite overcome) the loss of their son but only through Ralph's vulnerability does that begin to heal which Mendelsohn portrays well not just in his physicality but in his eyes. 


Jason Bateman as Terry Maitland in The Outsider

The role of Terry Maitland in the show is crucial to the mystery built around it all so the casting had to be spot on and thankfully the show gets it right with the inclusion of Jason Bateman. He is the everyday family man who would be the last person you would suspect of having committed such a heinous crime, especially when there is contradictory evidence at play. The downtrodden manner in which Bateman plays it makes you doubt yourself at times. In his article on Bateman in The Guardian from 2020, Charles Bramesco sums up Bateman's approach to the role perfectly when he says, "For all of his convincing performances of normalcy, Bateman's also capable of taking that one step further, and using that normalcy as a shield." Behind this shield his mask slips leaving a vulnerable figure that keeps us second guessing until certain mysteries are unveiled. 


In the TV show 'Mr. Mercedes', Justine Lupe plays the role of Holly Gibney but here Cynthia Erivo takes over and puts her own stamp on the role through a slightly different interpretation of the character. Both are great in their respective shows because their performances align with the mood and tone of the show in question. In 'The Outsider' she seems to be more of an introverted savant than someone who exhibits traits of autism. Here Holly seems disconnected from everyone and the emotion behind the case which allows her to focus primarily on solving it, which is not just key to solving the case but it reveals a lot about her as a character. She is standoffish and to the point with the case and everyone she meets at first. Once the show delves into her past she becomes more open and Erivo conveys this wonderfully, sometimes through a simple glance that seeps out of her rigid demeanour. 



The rest of the supporting cast are at the top of their game too. Julianne Nicholson gives a fiery performance as Glory Maitland, a woman who has to hide the sorrow from the case in the face of the accusatory eyes and snide comments of the residents of Cherokee City who pass Terry's guilt onto her and her family. One of her only confidants is Howie Salomon (Bill Camp), the Maitland family's lawyer and close friend. Camp's experience as a seasoned character actor really shines throughout the show, especially when he is at odds with Ralph. Special mention also has to go to Paddy Considine whose presence as reformed criminal Claude Bolton adds to the sombre tone of the show. I would also be remiss of not giving a mention to Marc Menchaca as alcoholic detective Jack Hoskins who is driven by the sinister force lurking in the shadows of the show. 



Throughout the show you constantly feel the presence of "El Coco". From their stalking of the Maitland children to the way it corrupts Jack Hoskins there is never a moment that you don't feel like it is watching everything unfold with a devilish glee, gorging on the grief of everyone in town before moving on and repeating the cycle of pain again. Although the finale of the show is an all guns blazing affair, the final confrontation feels a little bit underwhelming given the build up beforehand. The aura behind the creature is dispelled as it serves as a cathartic punching bag for Ralph Anderson and all of the grief in his life wrapping things up. 


When a story from Stephen King gets the prestige TV treatment that only a studio like HBO can bring, you expect magic. It is almost like a calling card for top talents and 'The Outsider' is no exception with top writers and directors working on the show alongside a cast of acclaimed actors collaborating to make one of King' most acclaimed recent works a success. For the most part it is but the overwhelming problem with the show is that it feels too baggy, losing momentum between the third and final episode which dispels a lot of tension and mystery that were the strong points of the early episodes of the show. It is a shame though as ultimately it is a good show but not a great one. 


Verdict: ⭐️⭐️⭐️½


-Joseph McElroy

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