Six Damn Fine Degrees #29: The Outsider

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

After the first two episodes of The Outsider, you might be forgiven for thinking it is meant as a meditation on relentless anguish. The cinematography alone is so bleak – if it isn’t nearly pitch black, it is almost sepia – you can almost feel the crushing weight of it, even with the sound off.

The plot, after the Stephen King novel of the same name, starts with an especially gruesome murder. A child has been savagely butchered, and the community, in which this vile act has been committed, is left reeling. Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) is the detective on the case who, weighed down by sorrows all his own, gathers the evidence. And all that evidence categorically points to only one man. The local coach and teacher, the stand-up citizen Terry Maitland, portrayed by Jason Bateman (who, incidentally, also directed the first two episodes). Ralph decides, with absolute conviction, to very publicly arrest Maitland, irrevocably robbing him of his reputation and his life. However, Howie Solomon (Bill Camp), Maitland’s lawyer, soon finds out that, regardless of the proof law enforcement think they have, it absolutely can not have been him. “He can’t have been in two places at once” sighs District Attorney Hayes (Michael Esper), clearly forgetting that he is in a Stephen King story.

Granted, this haunting slow burner might perhaps have been better served as a straight policier, rather than as a balancing act between police procedural and supernatural thriller, sporadically veering into horror territory. And it could be argued that the first two episodes are the most accomplished of the series. However, the talent involved here is such that, despite these quibbles, it is stunning to see them stretch their considerable abilities to accommodate the inclusion of the supernatural into the everyday. And, after all: we were promised Stephen King, not Wallander. The slightly lumbering pace is alleviated by the performances, especially by Cynthia Erivo as Holly Gibney, whom we meet in the third episode. She is the key: the character that links the wordly to the otherworldly, with some singular, savant-like talents. I might have balked at the trope, because although it is stated early on that she is unique and has never been diagnosed, we have all seen Rain Man, and the thudding cliché might well have proved just an annoying affectation. But because we need a bridge between chilly police procedural and spectral presences, the trope can be forgiven. Well, it can when it is performed with intelligence, warmth and to such great effect by the inimitable Erivo. So even though the series loses some of its thrills when the plot starts plodding towards a more supernatural bent, there is plenty here to keep a patient viewer interested.

Rewatching it now, tea in hand, the first pale sunbeams in this second summer of the pandemic peeking in through the window, I found it even darker than I initially did. The way that unimaginable suffering strikes these characters out of nowhere, without rhyme or reason and without recourse, is an aspect of the series that at the first viewing eventually seemed to lose its punch. Possibly due to its length and the unevenness of the material. But seeing it now, what lingers is that, just like all of us, Ralph Anderson seems to be groping in the dark, futilely trying to glean some meaning from the senseless calamities that befall us. If that seems a bit grim just now, perhaps it is. Even so, The Outsider is better than it has any right to be.

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