A key theme of this year's AFI Fest in Los Angeles revolves around the nature of identity. Who defines who we are? And how does the outside world allow or prohibit us to define ourselves? In TNT's new mini-series, I Am the Night, these questions are presented against the backdrop of 1965 and a violent murder that's become infamously entwined with the perils of stardom. AFI Fest attendees were fortunate enough to watch the pilot episode of I Am the Night, whetting appetites for what looks like a twisted, lushly nostalgic exploration of murder, sex, Hollywood, and personal freedom.
Set in 1965, I Am the Night is the story of Fauna Hodel (India Eisley), a mixed-race young woman who lives in Sparks, Nevada. Fauna shares a home with her mother (who's black), goes to school, and works at the local hospital. Fauna is torn between two identities; the white woman she can easily pass for yet is constantly reminded she isn't, and the black woman who isn't deemed black enough.
With a series filled to the brim with content let's start with our leading lady. Fauna is exquisitely portrayed by newcomer India Eisley, whose expressive eyes and face leave her resembling some of the most gorgeous actresses of the 1940s. (She's also a dead ringer for her mother, Romeo and Juliet actress Olivia Hussey.) Fauna is a character ripped straight from a Tennessee Williams play, with a Southern air of longing and lust. The camera languidly follows her, much like the car that pops up across the street to wait for her to leave. Fauna's routine consists of going to school, working at the local hospital, and trying to find time to be with her boyfriend, an African-American boy her mother despises. Fauna's relationship with her mother is particularly volatile, involving alcoholism and personal regrets.
Though the show is sold as a murder mystery starring Chris Pine, this is Fauna's story. The pilot is dominated by Eisley whose presence is so big despite her willowy frame. Her relationship with her mother is particularly brutal. When Fauna stumbles on information that leads her to question who she is, it is a moment of rebellion tinged with sadness. What's done cannot be undone. A scene of Fauna's mother pouring out the history of her life and Fauna's place within it is particularly heartbreaking. The episode is directed by Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins, who goes for a directorial progression of emotion as opposed to a shouting match. The frame, filled with cigarette smoke, sees Fauna and her mother pouring out their hearts ⏤ one verbally and the other internally. By the time the truth is revealed the two women are utterly broken, but neither can say what they truly want to. Neither can express the ownership of their love for each other.
The scene turns the show into overdrive, putting Fauna on a course to leave Sparks and travel to Los Angeles and find her grandfather, a wealthy doctor named George Hodel (played with delicious menace by Jefferson Mays). The name George Hodel doesn't ring any bells for many, but feel free to head over here if you want to know just how scared you should be. Suffice to say, the episode's ending scene, an utterly spellbinding shot of 1940s opulence isolated away from 1965, is a creepy prelude of things to come.
As Fauna's story plays out, it's easy to forget that an A-list actor is meant to lead this. Pine's Jay Singletary is a character ripped straight off the pages of mystery writer Max Allan Collins. Singletary lives in a world where men smoking cigarettes in dusty bars opine about the state of journalism and bemoan how "some stories aren't meant to be told." We meet Singletary as he's attempting to take pictures of a studio head and an ingenue actress. He's a man down on his luck, disgraced from any prestigious publication after telling that aforementioned untellable story.
Enmeshed in drug addiction, Singletary's plot doesn't seem to completely jive with Fauna's, and for much of the pilot it feels like we're watching two wildly different television shows. As Fauna struggles to fit into her small town, Jay is trying to get a real job, sick of stringing for peanuts. His scenes are comedic and reliant on Pine's devilish charm. It's as if Captain Kirk got caught wearing '60s duds. This isn't to disparage the role, which is fantastic and could only be played by Pine, a man who makes being stuck in a morgue drawer look as darling as can be. On its own merits, the pilot feels disjointed and dependent on the rest of the series to truly bring the two narratives together. This is set up at the end, with Jay receiving a phone call that puts him on an eventual path to Fauna.
Screenwriter Sam Sheridan and Patty Jenkins know their stuff and not only does I Am the Night look completely authentic to the period, it's a tightly wound limited series that will leave viewers holding onto to their breath. It's a show that you'll wish you could binge-watch. Seriously, January can't come soon enough.