Friday 24 January 2020

The Outsider review: Adaptation of Stephen King novel refuses to embrace horror

3 stars

Ben Mendelsohn as cop Ralph Anderson and Cynthia Erivo as private eye Holly Gibney in The Outsider.
Ben Mendelsohn as cop Ralph Anderson and Cynthia Erivo as private eye Holly Gibney in The Outsider.

Pat Stacey

If you’re one of Stephen King’s “constant readers”, as he calls them, you’ll know that literature’s greatest and most prolific living storyteller is big into connections.

Characters and settings crop up in different books, sometimes written decades apart. For instance, Dick Hallorann, a major character in The Shining (the novel, not Stanley Kubrick’s sterile and overrated movie) and its sequel Doctor Sleep, has a direct influence on one of the characters in IT, Mike Hanlon.

Two other characters from IT, Richie Tozier and Beverly Marsh, also show up briefly in King’s brilliant time travel/JFK assassination epic 11/22/63.

The events of IT are referenced twice in Dreamcatcher, while a character in The Tommyknockers thinks he glimpses a clown staring from a storm drain while driving through Derry, the fictional Maine town where so many of King’s novels and short stories are set.

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King fans won’t need telling that the author’s biggest supernatural villain, The Stand’s Randall Flagg, turns up repeatedly in a multitude of books, including The Dark Tower fantasy series, sometimes under a different name, but always with the initials RC.

King was building his own teeming literary universe long before it came fashionable. It’s no surprise, then, to find that Holly Gibney, a beloved character from the Mr Mercedes TV series and its trilogy of source novels, is also a major presence in The Outsider, HBO’s 10-part miniseries version of King’s 2018 novel.

You’ll search in vain, though, for Justine Lupe, who played her in Mr Mercedes. The Outsider’s version of Holly is played by British actress Cynthia Erivo, the star of Harriet, last year’s excellent film about real-life slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

Alas, you’ll also search in vain for any sign of Holly in the first two episodes of The Outsider, shown back-to-back last night. She won’t be appearing until next week.

Something else you might find missing is the punchy propulsiveness of Mr Mercedes, because The Outsider — developed by novelist Richard Price, who’s written six of the episodes (Dennis Lehane did the remainder) — is a different beast. It obviously wants to be thought of as prestige TV and lets you know it with its slow pace. It’s practically funereal at times.

For most of the last night’s double-bill, in fact, it didn’t even feel like we were watching something derived from a Stephen King novel but rather a True Detective wannabe.

When an 11-year-old boy is found murdered, his body torn to pieces and covered in human bite marks, the evidence against the town’s youth baseball coach Terry Maitland (Ozark’s Jason Bateman, who directed the first two episodes) is overwhelming.

His fingerprints and DNA are everywhere. Several eyewitnesses saw him after the murder, his face and clothes covered in blood. There’s even vital CCTV footage of him in which he seems to make a point of showing his face to the camera. Detective Ralph Anderson (Bill Mendelsohn) and the DA see an open-and-shut case.

Anderson, who’s drowning in grief and anger over the cancer-related death of his own young son, who Maitland coached, vengefully makes a big play of arresting Maitland in full view of the townsfolk. But there’s a snag.

When the boy was murdered, Maitland was in a different part of the country, attending a teachers’ conference, and the evidence proving it — including footage recorded by a TV crew — is incontrovertible. How could he be in two places at the same time?

This is the supernatural conundrum at the heart of The Outsider. For much of the time, though, it refuses to embrace it. Only the gradual emergence of a hooded figure, whose shadowed face suggests demonic grotesqueness, reminds us we’re watching a King horror.

The Outsider needs an injection of energy. Maybe it will come when Holly finally shows up.

The Outsider (Sky Atlantic/NOW TV)


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