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‘The Outsider’ Is HBO’s Latest Addictive Supernatural Murder Mystery

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The phenomenal hook of Stephen King’s 2018 novel The Outsider is that it presents a case that is, in a very literal sense, impossible. In small-town USA, an 11-year-old boy is found brutally raped and murdered. All evidence—eyewitnesses, security camera footage, fingerprints, DNA—indisputably points to one man. Except, however, that there’s also incontrovertible proof that this individual was elsewhere, and thus couldn’t have done the deed. It’s an inexplicable situation in which two polar opposite things are simultaneously true.

An impossible problem, of course, can only have an equally impossible solution, and the fundamental issue with both King’s story and HBO’s new 10-part miniseries (premiering Jan. 12, with its first two episodes) is that the only place for it to go, eventually, is into predictable supernatural territory. Nonetheless, as guided by executive producer/director/star Jason Bateman and writer Richard Price (The Night Of), The Outsider remains a gripping and haunting tale of unspeakable crimes and extraordinary incongruities. Better still, this small-screen adaptation improves upon its source material by altering its tone and emphasis. Reconfiguring itself as more of a Price-style procedural, it’s a portrait of the way in which grief spreads like a plague, infecting everyone it touches until the true tragedy isn’t the initial calamity that befell a person, family or community, but the wreckage left in its wake.

In an unremarkable Georgia enclave, the devastating incident in question is the slaying of young Frankie Peterson, discovered horribly violated and mutilated in the woods. Arriving at the scene, detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) can only drop his head in silent anguish when he hears that the boy is covered in bite marks, and not of the animal kind. His subsequent investigation leads, immediately and conclusively, to father, husband, and Little League baseball coach Terry Maitland (Bateman). Wracked with fury that’s amplified by his sorrow over the recent cancer death of his 15-year-old son, who used to play for Terry, Ralph makes a public show of arresting the suspect in front of an afternoon baseball game crowd. “You just ruined our lives,” Terry says to Ralph on the drive to the station.

Ruination, however, had begun long before this dog-and-pony spectacle, and it swirls and blooms in its aftermath. Ralph and the ambitious DA have Terry dead to rights. Yet with the aid of his wife Marcy (Julianne Nicholson), lawyer Howie Gold (Bill Camp) and private eye Alec Pelley (Jeremy Bobb), the accused is also able to definitively prove that he was out of town at a teacher’s conference at the time of the murder. Immovable object, meet unstoppable force.

The Outsider sets this scenario with grim efficiency, as Bateman (helming the first two episodes, and establishing the show’s oppressively dark Ozark-esque aesthetic template) alienates his characters by spying them down hallways and through doorways, off-center and at a remove. They’re boxed in by circumstance, fate and their own misery, incapable of escaping their figurative imprisonment and moving forward, or seeing outside their constricting worldview. Consequently, more misfortune follows, the rage and torment expanding like a scourge.

For a practical man like Ralph, the guilt and shame over his mistake with Terry is complicated by the incompatibility of the facts before him. There’s no harmony to be found, only a dawning realization that acceptance of the illogical is the sole logical response to what’s taking place. The Outsider retains King’s plot (and even adds to it, smartly) but does away with his folksy warmth, replacing it with the sparse moroseness of Price. The substitution fits the action well; the terse dialogue and fixation on systemic procedures is eerily reminiscent of The Night Of (Camp’s presence adds to this), except that in this instance, concerns over the inscrutability of identity are given a paranormal sheen. Frequent compositions of fuzzy figures, and the story’s commingling of dreams and reality, underscore the proceedings’ fascination with indistinctness, which is most fully embodied by the malevolent figure responsible for all this carnage: a hoodie-wearing, mush-faced specter who lingers on the periphery, soaking in people’s suffering like a sponge.

Or, for that matter, like Nosferatu, and the fact that this monster eventually enlists a Renfield to do his day-to-day bidding further casts The Outsider as an ancient tale in modern garb. The gravity with which the series carries itself is at once enlivening and a bit too self-conscious, and proves somewhat less fitting after the introduction of Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo), a uniquely autistic private-eye genius who’s hired to make the puzzle’s irreconcilable pieces fit. A fan-favorite King character, Holly has been reimagined so that her quirks are now more akin to superpowers (as well as attractive to men), which makes her sometimes feel like even more of a deus ex machina than she was in the book. It’s a testament to Erivo’s laser-focused performance that she exudes as much humanity as she does, although she’s ultimately a less compelling focal point than the rest of those involved in this mystery.

The destination is even less important here than it was originally, thanks to Price’s pinpoint evocation of the fallout from heartbreaking loss.

Despite having seen only six of The Outsider’s ten installments, it appears that the series is headed toward King’s finale. Still, the destination is even less important here than it was originally, thanks to Price’s pinpoint evocation of the fallout from heartbreaking loss. Mendelsohn is superb as Ralph, suggesting in weary gestures and expressions the man’s dogged refusal to face what’s right before him—about the case, about his son, about himself—and, also, the notion that his obstinance is born from the fact that he has faced those things, in the dead of night and in the quiet moments of the day, and he hasn’t liked what he’s seen. His stellar turn is complemented by uniformly great work from the entire cast, with Nicholson (a criminally undervalued actress) as the standout. Beset by anger and distress that’s only inflamed by the impossibility of it all, she’s an innocent woman trapped by forces outside her control, and thus a kindred spirit to Ralph—the two a pair of lost souls forced to contend with things that cannot and should not be, and yet are.

Some too-convenient plot developments aside, The Outsider casts a chilly pall that creeps into one’s bones, its horror elements used to amplify its character-centric investigation of everyday people’s struggles with death, adversity, and the rigid mental frameworks and weighty emotional baggage that limit the imagination and stymie healing and growth. As conveyed by an early labyrinth-like shot through a prison’s security protocols (and, later, a book title), tragedy leaves everyone lost in a maze, and the only escape, the series contends, comes from accepting and confronting the awful and unthinkable realities before us.

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