The Outsider: 1.01 Fish in a Barrel
The premise of the latest Stephen King adaptation from HBO is simple. How can a man be in two places at the same time? This is the dilemma facing Detective Ralph Anderson played by the always interesting to watch Ben Mendelsohn. An eleven year old boy has been brutally murdered and Ralph has what is commonly referred to as an orgy of evidence. Several witnesses, a multitude of fingerprints and CCTV footage all point categorically to the perpetrator of this heinous crime as local little league baseball coach Terry Maitland. It’s only after Ralph makes a big public show of arresting Maitland in the middle of a baseball game that new evidence starts to pile up. Most telling is the fact that Terry Maitland has an absolutely air tight alibi. He was undeniably at a teaching conference some seventy miles away at the time of the killing. The puzzling mystery is underway in this excellent debut episode.
Jason Bateman pulls triple duty on The Outsider as executive producer and director while starring as accused child murderer Terry Maitland. His direction on this opener is very deft and assured. Lingering shots and a slowly moving camera help build a palpable tension especially in the shows opening sequences. The first half of Fish in a Barrel is structured very much like the original novel. This isn’t your average whodunit or police procedural. Shown in a non-chronological order we already know Detective Anderson is on his way to arrest Maitland before we see the scenes of the suspect with blood dripping from his mouth. Intercut with the subsequent arrest are scenes of Ralph interviewing witnesses who all point the finger directly at the local sports coach. CCTV footage shows Maitland almost deliberately baring himself to the cameras just asking to be caught, and could it possibly be that he’s subtly ‘flipping the bird’ to the police in one shot?
Jason Bateman has always been excellent at playing an everyman, someone the audience can identify with. His portrayal of Terry Maitland is no exception. This makes it particularly disturbing when faced with the evidence that he just might be a man capable if committing a most gruesome murder. All the evidence clearly points to him being a monster and yet as the episode continues you begin to doubt his guilt. His constant pleas of innocence start to sound less hollow as contradictory evidence shows he couldn’t possibly have murdered little Frankie Peterson. Everything we’ve seen however shows he definitely did.
Bateman’s performance is understated and deliberate. Even when faced with the vile accusations, he doesn’t explode into rage. Instead he seems certain in the knowledge that the justice system will prevail and prove his innocence. Playing against him is Mendelsohn who also brings an everyman charm to Ralph Anderson. He’s not your usual hard-boiled gritty detective and it makes a refreshing change. It is easy to see why Ralph goes against all his training and chooses to make a public scene in arresting Maitland. We learn that he is also grieving a lost child, one lost to illness. When you factor in that Terry Maitland used to teach his son at baseball and with all the overwhelming evidence he’s gathered, you can’t blame Ralph for acting as he does. Obviously this is something he will soon regret.
Mendelsohn, like Bateman, keeps his performance low-key. You can sense his anger and disgust bubbling under the surface but his professionalism keeps it in check. He does’t want to do anything to jeopardise the case. A solid cast of veteran performers round out the ensemble including a sterling turn from Paddy Considine as a strip club owner. There is also a fantastic performance from Claire Bronson as the mother of the murdered boy. In one of the episodes best and most harrowing scenes, she takes a baseball bat to her kitchen and dining room. Her outpouring of grief and anger is all the more effective as it plays out in silence with just a quiet melody playing.
The cinematography of The Outsider is excellent with some outstanding aerial shots of the town bathed in a muted colour palette. Bateman has crafted a solid episode; nothing too flashy but perfectly adequate in setting the scene. It’s a definite slowburn that reminded me more of shows like True Detective and Mindhunter rather than the usual fare you might expect from Stephen King. Also of note is the music that is full of discordant strings and shrill violins that provide a suitably menacing soundtrack.
Fish in a Barrel is a promising start to what will hopefully be one of the more standout King adaptations. It is deliberately paced but never comes across as dull. The top notch cast all put in excellent performances and the mystery is a great hook that immediately pulls you in. How can one man be in two places at once and just who is the shadowy hooded figure lurking in the background? When Stephen King is involved you can bet the answers won’t be as straightforward as you might imagine.