Jason Bateman stars and directs in this spooky HBO adaptation of the Stephen King novel
TV dramatists can’t seem to resist a murdered child mystery but The Outsider (Sky Atlantic) promised something more than the usual ghoulish schlock. Was this a case of mistaken identity, secret doppelgängers, or something more spooky?
The 10-parter came with head-turning pedigree. It hailed from the illustrious HBO stable, was adapted from Stephen King’s 2018 bestseller by crime writer Richard Price and starred a heavyweight cast. Luckily, it largely delivered on these compelling credentials.
Smalltown Georgia detective Ralph Anderson (Bloodline’s Ben Mendelsohn, all hangdog looks and growled drawl) investigated when the body of an 11-year-old boy was discovered in the woods, brutally raped and horribly mutilated – from being bitten, it turned out.
“Animal?” Anderson asked his colleague from forensics. The chilling answer came: “No.”
Overwhelming evidence pointed to the culprit being popular local high school teacher and baseball coach Terry Maitland (Ozark’s Jason Bateman, who also directed this opening double bill). Outraged by the crime, Anderson deliberately had him arrested in front of a crowd of spectators.
Maitland looked banged to rights – except for one slight snag. At the exact time the murder was committed, he was at an educational conference 60 miles away, with multiple eyewitnesses and CCTV footage confirming his alibi. Was it possible he could be in two places at once?
"I'm as baffled by this conflicting evidence as you are," Anderson told the accused child-killer.
A well-played, rug-pulling twist at the start of episode two flipped our assumptions upside down and took the narrative in new directions. Eerie night terrors began to affect Maitland’s daughter and others connected to the case. A sinister hooded figure lurked at the edge of the action. The story appeared to veer from police procedural to something more supernatural, as you might expect from a King novel.
The stylings were suitably gloomy. The colour palette was all shades of slate grey and midnight blue. The pulsating soundtrack was ominously sparse and discordant. This was slow-burning fare, but just when you began to grow impatient, there would be another twist or goosebump-flaring moment.
Mendelsohn is often cast as a scenery-chomping villain but here he played against type as the dogged detective with the weight of the world on his slumped shoulders. British actress Cynthia Erivo, newly Oscar-nominated for abolitionist biopic Harriet, is still to arrive as private investigator Holly Gibney (a recurring King character) and tipped to be a scene-stealer. The likes of Bill Camp, Julianne Nicholson and our own Paddy Considine popped up in supporting roles.
Scenes were frequently shot at a distance – through door frames, down corridors, across streets – lending the show a voyeuristic air both tense and creepy, with spasms of graphic violence. As the camera glided overhead and into dark corners, it recalled The Sinner on Netflix or HBO’s own True Detective.
It remains to be seen whether The Outsider can pull off its pivot into the paranormal and deliver a satisfying pay-off. However, this opening bill certainly haunted the imagination.
The Outsider is available to stream on HBO