Cherokee City, Georgia is a small town like any other. When an unspeakable tragedy occurs that involves the death and mutilation of a young boy named Frankie Peterson, the town is shocked. Not only is the child’s body naked but there are bite marks all over. While one may assume an animal got him, the DNA on his body as well as surveillance footage and eyewitness testimony point to Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman) as the killer. Video of him with blood all over and dripping off his mouth soon after Frankie’s death seal Terry’s fate. Lead detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) is so confident and enraged that he has Terry, a local little league coach and teacher, arrested in the middle of a game and even accuses Terry of possibly even hurting Ralph’s now deceased son. However, this open-and-shut case is anything but as Terry’s claims that he was out of state for a teaching conference is supported by surveillance footage that even matches the exact time he supposedly killed Frankie. But, how can a person be in two places at one time?
That is the crux of The Outsider, the latest Stephen King adaptation to hit television via HBO’s miniseries. Stretching ten episodes, this dark horror and crime drama slowly progresses as it dabbles into the supernatural as the investigators try to make sense of what happened to Frankie Peterson. Complicating matters – even more than the conflicting evidence – is the discovery by private investigator Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo) that Cherokee City is not alone. From their small Georgia town to Dayton, Ohio to New York City, there have been a string of child murders committed, allegedly, by people who were otherwise good and had stone-cold alibis for when the crimes were committed. As The Outsider probes its complex mystery, it is often horrifying. Willingly delving into possible supernatural answers, The Outsider peaks in its terror around its middle with episodes such as ‘Tear-Drinker’ and ‘The One About the Yiddish Vampire’ as this possible route intensifies via chilling nightmares, middle of the night visits, and chilling testimony from people who believe in the boogeyman as a realistic answer for these crimes.
Amplifying this terror is the tenderness with which The Outsider approaches the emotional heft of its story. Not only are there many supernatural encounters the characters have, but characters like Ralph continue to deal with the death of a loved one. For him, it is his son. Meanwhile, the deaths that follow the murders of these children across the country – the entire Peterson family, in short order, die in often tragic ways after Frankie’s death, a pattern common to all cases – compound the film’s emotional turmoil. As it supposes this being could be feeding on the grief, the lurking of this demonic beast is given an even more unsettling nature. From the moments the series starts dabbling into this fear of the unknown and what may be lurking in the shadows, The Outsider proves haunting. The directors all do quite well in leaving the answer unclear while obscuring any supernatural actions in the shadows or in long shots to keep the audience unsure where the truth lies, all while building up to genuine fear in the end. The Outsider, to its fault, does seem a bit too content to ride this to the end with it dragging out Holly’s explanation of what is going on for multiple episodes and then similarly languishing towards its final episodes. However, its ability to maintain this chilling mood and utilization of tragedy alongside horror gives The Outsider a consistent power that helps it to generally overcome its flaws.
The Outsider consistently benefits from its strong cast. Despite the prevalence of Jason Bateman early on, this is truly Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo’s show. Mendelsohn has always excelled at internalized emotion and not only is that befitting the reserved, aged “cowboy” detective that Ralph Anderson is, but it does well in capturing how his grief guides him. Desperate for answers and slowly but surely willing to embrace the supernatural angle – almost as a coping mechanism – Mendelsohn’s take on this conflicted detective is nuanced and consistently powerful. Erivo, as she showed in recent film roles like Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows, is a force to be reckoned with. As an “outsider” her whole life, the unconventional approaches taken by Holly, her mental intimations about what is going on, and her unique personality ticks, are all terrifically captured by Erivo. One of Stephen King’s more well-known characters, Holly is brought to life by Erivo as she herself fights some of what she finds but is largely a passionate defender of believing in the unbelievable. Her passion convinces the audience in turn with Erivo being a captivating presence throughout. The strong supporting cast that includes Bill Camp as a litigious but strong lawyer, Mare Winningham as Ralph’s equally depressed wife, and Marc Menchaca as the increasingly tortured and damaged Detective Jack Hoskins, are all impressive as well. Of that bunch, Menchaca is perhaps tasked with the greatest challenge as he deals with the presence of whatever is killing these kids as Jack has the closest connection to this entity. Capturing the internal anguish he has carried with him all his life as well as the growing physical torment Jack is under, Menchaca is consistently impressive.
Visually, The Outsider is notable for its gloomy color palette. Emphasizing dull blues, grays, and blacks, this is a creepy and ominous work from the onset due to its consistently gloomy mood. Matched by the grief abounding in its plot and characters, the color palette does well in establishing this mood. Of course, it is impossible to talk about the visuals of the series without discussing the first episode. A direct overhead of the crime scene in the dark as characters move about with flashlights trying to examine what happened to Frankie Peterson is a striking shot, possessing a haunting beauty while capturing the heavy emotional weight of this scene. Throughout, The Outsider prizes long shots and crane shots that are often effectively deployed in tracking the movements of characters or in building up to a terrifying reveal. These shots are particularly effective in moments like the first scene of the closing episode, ‘Must/Can’t’. Transitioning from a long, serene shot of the horizon to intense close-ups as the group of detectives come under gunfire, The Outsider does well in highlighting the chaos and terror underneath the seeming calm of our world. The hidden, unseen forces are key to The Outsider with long shots often obscuring this with the silence of a graveyard or a community being deceptive until it cuts closer to examine the growing sorrow and bloodshed that is gripping its streets with terror. Selective and rack focuses are common as well, particularly when it comes to the more emotional or thrilling scenes. This is especially true in any number of scenes where somebody has a vision of the monster in their home, the shallow focus does well to capture the confusion of the sightings (as they often happen in the middle of the night) while obscuring the vision just enough to blend the line between reality and fantasy.
Strong cinematography and excellent acting elevate The Outsider throughout its run. It struggles with pacing at times, especially towards the latter half as episodes seem to drag on while progressing the story very little. Nonetheless, the terrifying mood established early on, exploration of the supernatural, and compelling mystery ensure that The Outsider never completely wavers from being a good miniseries. An adaptation of the Stephen King novel featuring direction from impressive film directors like Jason Bateman and Karyn Kusama as well as television direction veterans like Andrew Bernstein, The Outsider has some serious pedigree behind it and while it may not be great, it never fails to demonstrate the immense skill of all those involved.