True Detective: Good show, bad men

‘True Detective’ may not have earned its fair share at this year’s Emmy Awards, but there’s a good reason everyone’s talking about HBO’s grim new miniseries

True detective
Our heroes go on a decades-long search for the killer, the enigmatic Yellow King
By Noah Nazim

It doesn’t take long to see the cinematic genius of HBO’s ‘True Detective’. The title sequence alone is a masterpiece, a montage of dreamlike juxtapositions: within the silhouettes of our heroes, white industrial machinery contrasts starkly against the dark Louisiana landscape, Christian iconography is overlaid with flickering hellfire, and a playground slide is robbed of its innocence when it’s framed within the lower half of a woman’s naked back. All to the tapping tempo of The Handsome Family’s ‘Far From Any Road’ – probably the most powerful, haunting song about a cactus you’ll ever hear. It’s a sure sign of two things: that ‘True Detective’ is concerned with far deeper themes than your average police procedural, and that you are in for a visual feast.

Like a novel, ‘True Detective’ feels like the product of a singular vision. That’s due in no small part to the creative control maintained by the show’s creator and sole writer, award-winning author Nic Pizzolatto; it’s also thanks to the fact that Cary Fukunaga (director of the stunning 2011 adaptation of ‘Jane Eyre’, for which he’s won a host of accolades) directed all eight episodes, giving the season a consistency that outpaces most modern films. Both also served as executive producers along with the two stars, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, in what look to be the performances of their careers.

It’s incredible how much both actors disappear into their roles – we don’t see Harrelson and McConaughey on the screen, we see Marty Hart and Rust Cohle. Paired up with one another, they come off a lot like Superman and Batman, if Superman and Batman were two hard-drinking Southern cops: Harrelson’s Marty is ostensibly the very picture of blue-eyed, square-jawed, all-American wholesomeness; McConaughey’s Rust is brooding, fiercely analytical, dedicated to his work to the point of obsession and never seems to sleep. Marty’s a family man who keeps up a veneer of moral righteousness, but he’s also constantly lying to his wife and has regular fits of jealous rage; Rust is a solemn-faced loner who’s prone to hallucinations and existential monologues. They’re often foils for one another: Marty trying to rein in Rust’s antisocial nihilism; Rust giving Marty a sobering look at reality. We follow our heroes as they drive across rural Louisiana (depicted in awe-inspiring wide shots of a land devastated by hurricanes, industry and neglect in equal measure), navigating a labyrinth of old tax records, potential witnesses, connections between suspects and old case files. Every new development adds to the thrill of the chase – we’re excited along with our heroes at every promising lead.

The narrative switches between time periods regularly, taking us from Marty and Rust’s investigation of a ritualistic murder in 1995, to separate interviews with the two of them in 2012, in the course of which we realise, worryingly, that the case has yet to be solved. It’s a story that takes place over the span of decades, thoroughly enmeshing itself in our heroes’ lives and taking a heavy toll.

We cut between young, clean-cut versions of our heroes and older versions whose faces bear the ravages of time, McConaughey’s looking the most ravaged of all. He’s nigh unrecognisable as old Rust, with a scraggly ponytail, a handlebar moustache and an aged, haggard complexion, making us wonder what happened that sent him to such a dark place. In his cold, husky whisper he reveals himself to be something of a philosopher, an autodidact genius and a desperately bitter pessimist – it’s a role for which he will no doubt be commended for years to come, as far away as McConaughey can get from his rom-com persona as a grinning, shirtless beachboy.

There’s something in Rust’s grim demeanour and his poetic, world-weary monologues on the futility of human existence that bring to mind the classic hard-boiled noir anti-hero, with a dark dose of Nietzschean nihilism to complete the picture of a brilliant, tortured mess. But whereas the ‘tough, growling badass’ archetype might seem dreadfully cliché elsewhere, McConaughey’s impeccable performance completely sells it – we can’t imagine anyone else pulling off a line like, ‘The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.’ For all its uniqueness and splendour, ‘True Detective’ feels like a fresh take on a very old, established formula: bad men trying to do good by fighting worse men. If anything it’s the retread into familiar territory that makes the show feel so thrilling. We watch our heroes run the full gamut of regard for each other, from disdain to camaraderie, gradually developing a rapport that a lesser show would have simply taken for granted. By the time they work together as buddies, we feel they’ve thoroughly earned it.

And while the women of the show are generally one-note and lack the depth of the male leads, they aren’t weak either: Michelle Monaghan gives a captivating performance as Maggie, Marty’s wife, holding her own despite being given little to do other than cope with her philandering husband, and a sex worker puts Marty in his place when he judges her for her profession: ‘Girls walk this earth all the time screwing for free,’ she says. ‘Why is it you add business to the mix and boys like you can’t stand the thought? I’ll tell you: It’s because suddenly you don’t own it the way you thought you did.’

Moments like this are reassuring; this season is about men who don’t seem to think much of women, but by no means are we invited to join in their misogyny, nor does that misogyny seem to prop up their heroism. In fact it’s our heroes’ inability to understand the women around them that keeps them in such a tragic loop. Still, we’re hoping the next season gets away from the confines of the male perspective – compelling and nuanced though its portrayal is, it’s still a path thoroughly well trodden, and Pizzolatto seems to be a writer capable of showing us something new. ‘True Detective’ is set to be an anthology series, with each season telling its own self-contained story from beginning to end – next season will feature an entirely new cast, director and story. If it’s anything like this year’s season, this could very well be one of the best shows on television, and you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Look out for Season 2 of ‘True Detective’ in summer 2015.