“It’ll be fine,” Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton) tries to assure his father, Big Jim (Ray Liotta) in AppleTV+’s new series Black Bird. Jim isn’t having it, though. Tired and gravel voice, his hand draws a sharp line through the air as he replies, “No, it won’t. It won’t.”
They’re specifically talking about Dad showing up as himself at a prison where his son is supposed to be undercover. A big-time but largely nonviolent drug dealer, Jimmy’s agreed to cozy up to serial killer Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser) to find out where Hall buried his victims, in return for a sentence commutation. Big Jim’s arrival immediately puts that in jeopardy, less than 24 hours after Jimmy started the operation.
White hair rings Liotta’s face, his tracksuit covered in tones of white, grey, and tan. His skin, not so much wrinkled as topographic, seems constantly tightened in stress and blends into his hair and clothes. Big Jim already looks like he’s already begun the process of becoming a ghost in advance of his death.
His eyes are watery, barely holding back the tears motivated by his bone-deep end-of-life regret. It’s the sort of regret that comes from knowing yourself better than anyone and knowing it’s too damn late to fix the problem. His voice remains strong, but he gets lost in his own words, the consequence of a recent stroke. When he says, “It won’t” be fine, he’s not talking about the mistake directly in front of him. He’s talking about a lifetime of failing as a dad. Jimmy is forgiving him for the mental lapse of an aging man recovering from a stroke, but the actor knows Big Jim’s self-admonish carries the weight of years.
In this way, Big Jim is a character on familiar ground for Liotta. While he tends to be most often associated with a fierce intensity, his ability to inhabit regret has played an equal part in his career. From nearly the first time he was on camera, he built a filmography of characters who seem intimately familiar with that emotion. Time and again, he’s found different corners of it to present and explore.
Take, for example, his breakthrough role as Ray Sinclair in Something Wild. The actor received praise mainly for his frightening charisma in the film, and rightfully so. Still, he brings Sinclair’s regret to the surface in his nearly wordless final moments: Accidentally impaling himself on a hunting knife in the formerly milquetoast Charlie’s (Jeff Daniels) hands, all Ray’s rage and wounded entitlement immediately drain away.
His eyes go wide, but it isn’t fear or shock they register. Instead, it’s the look of a man realizing he’s finally made a mistake that he’s not slick, strong, or dangerous enough to erase. It’s the sorrow of a man who screwed up too badly to get away with it this time.