Midway through the 2013 TV fall season, seven new shows glamorizing serial killers were added by various networks, bringing the total to 20. HBO seems a little late to the game with True Detective, a series which centers around two mismatched detectives, Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), who, in 1995, investigate and solve the occult-like murder of Dora Lange, a young prostitute whose body is found in a section of a sugarcane forestry in the Louisiana countryside. Cut between the mid ’90s and present-day, the two detectives are called back for questioning when a similar case arises seventeen years later. With only eight episodes to tell its story, True Detective wastes no time in laying the groundwork. The story weaves back and forth from a present day interrogation, where Rust and Martin are being questioned separately about the events surrounding the Lang murder. It seems that either a copycat has surfaced, or the real murderer is back — and if this is the case, the man responsible is not the one put behind bars. Everything about True Detective might seem incredibly familiar, but HBO’s eight part anthology – cut from a 450-page script – is an entirely different beast. Unlike most TV shows, which use a wide range of writers and directors to tell their stories, every episode of True Detective was written by creator Nic Pizzolatto (The Killing) and directed by Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) – a wise decision since it lends a distinct, singular vision to the entire season. In a sense, it’s pretty much a feature length film – albeit eight hours long.
The first episode titled “The Long Bright Dark,” opens on the discovery of Lang’s body after being drugged, tied, raped, tortured, strangled — eventually posed in a kneeling position, bent over as if praying, branded with a tattoo and crowned with a set of antlers. The meticulously crafted tableau is quite similar to the crimes shown in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, with the ritually fetishization of the act even labeled the work of a meta psychotic. But True Detective isn’t concerned with setting up a case of the week narrative, and although Dora Lange’s murder brings to mind other shows, both new and old, True Detective seems far more interested in the people who solve the mystery than the person who committed the crime. In fact, the first episode spends much of its time with Hart and Cohle simply having long, philosophical conversations about life and death. The murder mystery is just a foil, a genre-based hook, to get viewers watching. And while it is still too early to tell, True Detective seems methodical rather than macabre, clinical rather than cruel.
Director Fukunaga, with the help of series cinematographer Adam Arkpaw (Top of the Lake), craft one gorgeous looking series, finding beauty in just about every frame. Along with its evocative, haunting cinematography, Americana master T-Bone Burnett, provides a subtle but moody score. It’s a pretty picture — but in fact, it’s often extremely unpleasant to watch. Camera angles are often very creative and unusual, heightening the viewers sense of curiosity, while adding to the atmosphere. Scenes unfold in interrogation rooms, smoky pubs and along the stretched out, lonely highways. The episode is riddled with symbols and clues laid out right in front of our eyes; from graffiti on a the side of a building to Rust’s sketches, to beer-can figurines, and especially that coffee mug which gets more screen time than half the cast. But putting aside all the talent behind the camera, the main reason to watch True Detective, is for the two stellar performances by McConaughey and Harrelson.
Fukanaga and writer Nick Pizzolatto, fully embrace the pulpiness of their material. Rust and Martin are a fascinating pair of cops -a blend of the classic 40’s noir gumshoe and the modern detective – both intense, intellectual profilers with some serious inner turmoil. The dialogue is fantastic, and both actors carry a plausible Deep Southern accent. At times we’re reminded of classic film noirs, and other times, True Detective recalls old Westerns. This is a man’s, man’s show, although its examination of masculinity often feels a little abstract.
True Detective marks a return for Harrelson, the former star of the hit sitcom Cheers, and a departure for McConaughey, whose built a new image with his most recent roles in Magic Mike, Mud, Dallas Buyers Club, and The Wolf of Wall Street. Rust Cohle (McConaughey) wears his troubles on his sleeves, chain-smoking every chance he gets, and drinking himself numb. He suffers from insomnia, is a frequent drug user, and tries desperately to cope with the loss of his daughter. His world-view monologue while riding in the car with Martin reaffirms this deep, dark depression. Martin Hart (Harrelson) is on the other hand, a healthy, happily married man with two daughters and faith in the Lord. Harrelson, plays the straight man with weary aplomb, but McConaughey nearly steals every scene right from under his nose. They work in opposite ways: Hart tends to follow traditional detective work, gathering hard evidence and following solid leads. Cohle’s more analytical, intuitive, perceptive – profiling everyone around him based on his thoughts, feelings and observations. Much like his body, his mind rarely sleeps, and his colleagues nickname him “The Taxman” because of the oversized, ledger he keeps by his side at all times. As hinted in the present day sequences, Marty and Rust traveled on opposite roads since their working relationship came to an end a decade past. Based on what little we see of these men during the interview sessions, it becomes clear that Detective Hart has moved up in the world, but not Cohle, who looks like a man who’s been to Hell and back again.
True Detective is many things – a beautifully poised, slow and ominous work of a mature, sure-handed director, and a show that works well as an immersive character study. This is an intelligent, well acted, superbly photographed series, with a subtle score and a gripping murder mystery. But based on one episode, it is still too early to tell if the series will become more agonizingly suspenseful as it gets closer to an answer. One can’t help but think of Bryan Singer’s 1995 film The Usual Suspects, and its canny, slightly self-conscious take on myth and methods of storytelling. Can our narrators be trusted, or are Cohle and Hart no different that Verbal Kint?
– Ricky D