Andre Holland is a superstar—Hollywood just hasn’t caught on yet.
Nonetheless, paired with one of the best casts on television, he once again proves his peerless talent in Castle Rock, Hulu’s new binge-watchable series based on the works of Stephen King. And yes, I mean works, plural. This 10-episode show isn’t an adaptation of any one particular King tome but, rather, is a project that synthesizes elements from many of his novels (both popular and lesser-known) for an all-new supernatural mystery set in one of his favorite fictional haunting spots: the quiet Maine town of Castle Rock.
Created by Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, and executive produced by J.J. Abrams—himself a King aficionado who for years tried to shepherd a long-form version of the author’s The Dark Tower to the screen—Castle Rock is, first and foremost, a showcase for Holland, the 38-year-old actor who initially made a splash in Steven Soderbergh’s superlative small-screen Cinemax effort The Knick, and followed that up with unforgettable turns in Ava DuVernay’s Selma and Barry Jenkins’ 2016 Best Picture winner Moonlight. Here, he’s magnetic as Henry Deaver, a criminal defense attorney who handles death row cases in Houston, to little success. After his latest failure, which ends in grim fashion, he receives a phone call from his home town of Castle Rock, informing him that Shawshank State Prison now houses a perplexing new inmate—who’s asked for Deaver personally.
Given that he doesn’t have any clients back in Maine, Deaver finds this request intriguing, and the more he learns about the person requesting his help, the stranger things become. The individual in question is a tall, gaunt nameless kid (Bill Skarsgård, aka IT’s Pennywise) who barely speaks, and who was discovered by prison guard Dennis Zalewski (Noel Fisher)—the man who called Deaver—in a cage at the bottom of a giant water tank located in a Shawshank wing that’s been closed for decades due to a catastrophic fire. Skarsgård’s weirdo isn’t on any of the facility’s record books, which means his clandestine confinement was likely due to the previous warden, Dale Lacy (Terry O’Quinn). Problem is, no one can interrogate Lacy about this situation, because at the beginning of episode one, he kills himself at a bluff at Castle Lake—the same place that, in 1991, Deaver himself was discovered in the dead of winter, unharmed, after going missing for eleven days.
Henry doesn’t remember what took place during that fateful adolescent hiatus, but while he was MIA, his adopted preacher-father was pushed off the bluff, resulting in injuries that eventually led to his death. Deaver was thus suspected of murder, and that reputation—and his faulty memory—haunts him as he returns to his old stomping ground. There, he grapples with unsettling unknowns about himself, his father’s demise and Lacy’s suicide, as well as reconnects with his forgetful mother Ruth (Sissy Spacek), her new boyfriend Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn)—the former sheriff who found Deaver years ago—and Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey), the girl who lived across the street from him as a child, and who’s apparently blessed/cursed with “shining”-like psychic powers. Oh, and did I mention that Lacy’s suicide note (to Pangborn) indicates that he kept Skarsgård in a hole on God’s orders, because the kid is literally the Devil?
Even in its first four episodes (which were all that was provided to press), Castle Rock is rife with beguiling narrative threads. It’s to Shaw and Thomason’s credit that their story plays like a classic King original, replete with an enigmatic fiend, flashbacks to childhood traumas, tensions between parents and kids, and an overarching atmosphere of tranquil Maine sleepiness masking root-deep rot. As one might expect, its title sequence is full of references to King books. The action itself, however, more slyly shouts out its Castle Rock-set predecessors—newspaper clippings about Cujo and Needful Things, comments about serial stranglers (The Dead Zone) and Vincent Desjardin (The Body/Stand By Me)—as a way of embedding its tale in King’s particular world.
That’s also true of scenes that echo prior signature King moments, such as Lynskey’s shining-afflicted Strand walking up stairs and peering into a bathroom while clutching a butcher knife, or Skarsgård communicating with a prison rat. And, of course, there’s the fact that Spacek (Carrie) Lynskey (Rose Red) and Skarsgård aren’t strangers to the larger King universe. Those elements are sure to please die-hards. Better still, however, is Castle Rock’s subversion of King archetypes—for example, Zalewski is a noble prison guard; Pangborn is a sketchy retired sheriff; and Strand is a telepath of questionable stability, using pharmaceuticals to control her abilities. By playing off familiar King tropes, the series keeps audiences on its toes, preventing them from pinning down precisely where it’s headed. Though its eerie aesthetics are far from daring, it delivers routinely suspenseful revelations and set pieces even as it takes its creeping-death time developing its characters and scenario, all in order to build toward some greater horror.
Best of all, it has Holland. His Deaver is a man displaced—by adoption, by being an African-American man with white parents in a white community, and by being a pariah who’s now, after years away, returned as something of a suspicious outsider. Holland embodies him with an uneasy sort of confidence, his conviction and resolve destabilized by nagging confusion and self-doubt, as well as by the ostracism that greets him wherever he goes. It’s a subtly commanding performance that never calls undue attention to itself, and is elevated by small gestures and incidents that allow Holland to convey much by doing little. That’s never more true than during an early visit to Shawshank when, upon being forced by a white prison official to go an addition step to display his ID, he gives a knowing eye-roll smile and utters “mmm-hmmm” in recognition of the prejudice bearing down on him, due to both his race and his (suspected) patricidal notoriety.
Far from a one-man show, Holland is aided by uniformly great co-stars: a forgetful but fierce Spacek; a crusty and combative Glenn; and an empathetic but unstable Lynskey, whose scenes with Holland are charged with undercurrents of romance, distrust, shame and regret, and often (predictably) turn out to be the best parts of Castle Rock’s early going. No doubt more unholy terrors await, but with those fantastic leads at the center of this dawning nightmare, one feels confident that the show’s supernatural cataclysms won’t ever fully overshadow its compelling human heart.