HBO’s adaptation of Stephen King’s supernatural murder mystery is off to an eerie, understated start.
Read enough Stephen King and you’ll soon figure out that he has either a fascination with or fear of (or both) the concept of doppelgangers. They come up often in his stories, predominantly The Talisman, the Dark Tower series, and The Dark Half. King even created his own doppelganger in Richard Bachman, using that pseudonym for his bleakest stories, including “Rage” and “The Long Walk.” 2018’s The Outsider is his most unsettling take on the concept yet, combining a murder mystery with elements of The Thing. HBO’s limited series adaptation so far does it justice, using the first two episodes to set up a creepy tale of a small town rocked by the death of a child, and the otherworldly hand behind it.
That child is 11 year-old Frankie Peterson, and his gruesome murder is investigated by police detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn). It may well be Ralph’s first time investigating a murder, and, struggling with the death of his own son from cancer, he’s unable to put his emotions aside, particularly when evidence immediately points to a most unlikely suspect: middle school teacher and Little League coach Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman).
Some of the details of the case against Terry don’t make sense, like why he was driving a van with out of state plates (and more importantly, why he was unconcerned that several witnesses saw him walking around covered in blood), but the real evidence — blood samples, fingerprints, DNA — is irrefutable. Driven by misplaced anger, Ralph is all too eager to arrest Terry, and does so publicly, in the middle of a Little League game, “where everyone can see.”
Having Terry arrested in front of the whole town, humiliating his wife, Glory (Julianne Nicholson), and daughters in the process, is, to put it inelegantly, a dick move, and Ralph regrets it immediately. He claims to Terry’s attorney, Howie Gold (Bill Camp), that if the arrest had been done privately he might have murdered Terry, but that doesn’t seem quite believable. It’s clear that, to combat the helplessness he feels over losing his son, he needs for people to see him doing something good and heroic, defeating a monster of sorts, even if that monster is someone he knows and likes.
Terry himself is flabbergasted at his arrest, and appalled when Ralph insinuates that he’s a pedophile. Bateman is doing stellar work here, subtle and low-key when he could have resorted to over the top “I’m innocent, I tells ya!” theatrics. He’s not angry at Ralph arresting him, he’s devastated, and has the shell-shocked look of someone who’s very recently survived a natural disaster. Complicating matters further (though that’s putting it lightly) is that Terry has a solid alibi, with video evidence that he attended a conference out of town the same day Frankie was murdered. It’s not much when put up against all the physical evidence, however, and the baffling discovery that Terry was captured on video in town that day as well, making no effort to hide from cameras. Almost like he wanted to be seen.
It’s clear that, to combat the helplessness he feels over losing his son, he needs for people to see him doing something good and heroic, defeating a monster of sorts, even if that monster is someone he knows and likes.
The first episode of The Outsider, directed by Bateman, capably establishes the characters, and the strange circumstances Ralph is about to face. Assuming it continues to follow the book, the plot will eventually develop into horror, but right now it’s a sinister mystery, not quite out there as True Detective, but with that same weighty sense of foreboding. It also gives its female characters more depth than a fretful, nagging spouse or personality-free sex partner. Ralph’s wife, Jeannie (Mare Winningham), is the solid, stable heart of the story, and their scenes together are the highlight of the show so far. Meanwhile, Terry’s wife, Glory, struggles with keeping her own shock and anger over Terry’s arrest restrained for the sake of their kids. She already knows what everybody else is afraid to admit: no matter if Terry is found guilty or innocent, nothing will ever be the same again.
The Outsider also does an excellent job of illustrating how Frankie Peterson’s murder, and Terry’s subsequent arrest, impacts several of the key players. Ralph, already shaken by unimaginable loss, doesn’t know how to handle not being able to explain how Terry could have been in two places at once. He doesn’t have an answer for why his son had to die, and he doesn’t have an answer for this either, and that’s unacceptable. While Terry’s younger daughter is troubled by nightmares of a man who tells her “bad things,” Frankie Peterson’s mother (Claire Bronson) is so overwhelmed with grief-stricken rage that she dies of a heart attack. It’s a horrible ripple effect in a murky pond.
Hopefully you don’t get too attached to Jason Bateman, because he dies less than fifteen minutes into the second episode. Shot on his way to a court appearance by Frankie Peterson’s brother, who’s practically still a kid himself, Terry proclaims his innocence until the very end, dying in front of Ralph. Watching from the distance and unseen by anyone is a mysterious, disfigured man in a hoodie, who’s also skulking around when Frankie’s father commits suicide. The destruction of the entire Peterson family in just a matter of a couple of days is a signature Stephen King macabre touch, and works to particularly chilling effect here. The mysterious figure seems to be hanging around specifically to enjoy the horror show.
Put on administrative leave after shooting Frankie’s brother to death, Ralph, wracked with guilt and troubled by the loose ends in Terry’s case, continues investigating it on his own. Refusing to accept the District Attorney’s belief that some things defy explanation, Ralph starts with a scrap of paper found in the van where Frankie was murdered, tracing it, with Jeannie’s help to a barbecue restaurant in Dayton, Ohio.
How the van, originally driven by a runaway teen, made it hundreds of miles to Ralph’s town with Terry’s fingerprints all over it still remains a mystery. It’s a mystery that’s complicated further by the fact that Terry and his family were in Dayton at the same time the van was abandoned, but flew both ways. Ralph wouldn’t know any of this if not for the fact that Glory, albeit reluctantly, agrees to help in his investigation. It’s a bit of a stretch that she’d be in any way willing to assist the man who’s at least partially responsible for her husband’s death (indeed, she was a tougher nut to crack in the book), but a small part of Glory is moved by the guilt and sorrow Ralph expresses.
Mendelsohn, more familiar to American audiences as steely-eyed villains in movies like Rogue One, is salt of the earth decent in The Outsider. His best scenes so far are the quiet ones, like with Winningham, and a late night visit with Terry at the jail, during which he admits his bafflement over the case, and listens to Terry talk about coaching Ralph’s son to Little League victory. It’s imperative to Ralph that the case be closed, either by unequivocally proving Terry’s guilt, or his innocence. If it turns out to be the latter, he’ll have to live with that, but it’s certainly better than not knowing at all.
Terry’s older daughter mentions to Ralph that, while on the trip to Dayton, Terry suffered a minor cut after an accidental run-in with a male nurse at his father’s nursing home. Call it “Chekhov’s Hand Injury,” in that it doesn’t seem like anything now, but obviously it will later. His younger daughter continues to suffer from nightmares about the strange man in her house, who appears to be getting closer, given the traces of unidentifiable goo left behind on her bedroom floor. It appears to be the same kind of goo found smeared all over a pile of clothes found abandoned in a barn — the clothes Terry was spotted wearing in the hours following Frankie Peterson’s murder. That little scrap of paper Ralph found is only the beginning.
- In addition to Mendelsohn and Winningham, The Outsider is a veritable Murderer’s Row of great character actors, including Nicholson, Russian Doll‘s Jeremy Bobb and Yul Vasquez, and Paddy Considine, doing a flawless American accent, as bartender Claude Bolton.
- You’re probably wondering why the feature image is of Mendelsohn with Cynthia Erivo, when I didn’t mention her in the review. Be patient, she hasn’t shown up yet.
- I’d be interested to find out what everyone who hasn’t read the book thinks is going to happen (if it’s not too soon to say). I have read it, and I’m both excited and a little nervous about how it’s going to play out. The beauty (if such a word is accurate) of Stephen King’s novels is that they’re effective when you try to imagine what’s happening in them. It’s when someone tries to bring them to life visually, like King’s concept of a magic tortoise holding up the world in It, that things sometimes get a little shaky. We shall have to see.
- With episodes of The Outsider written by such literary luminaries as Richard Price (Clockers) and Dennis Lehane (Mystic River), and directed by no less than Karyn Kusama, it warms this old horror fan’s heart to see the genre being treated with seriousness and respect.
- A word of caution to sensitive viewers: though the shots only hold for a moment or two, the first episode spares little in depicting the horrifying injuries on little Frankie Peterson’s body.