Only two episodes in and True Detective is already one of the most visually striking television shows ever to hit cable. Few programs in recent history have put as much emphasis on its setting as an extension of the characters, as HBO’s drama tells so much about the bedraggled state of its detectives just by focusing on the hurricane-ravaged Louisiana woods they drive through. Torn apart but still standing, Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) are haunted and guilt-ridden, hoping for normalcy and comfort in a dark, deranged community. Their police cruiser, notably the only car seen on the road, cuts through the destruction at top speed. Can they work together to mend a destroyed community and their own equally tattered psyches?
Hart and Cohle are not typical television heroes: they are moody and morose, deeply unhappy with their circumstances and sometimes even at odds with each other. Slowly, these two souls are starting to find things in common and work as a team; however, as flash-forward scenes indicate, there was still a falling out between them that we will likely see in a few weeks. The eight-episode series, written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre), is already starting to stand out from other crime procedurals, as it is one more ordained on figuring out the detectives than having the detectives figure out the crime. Patient viewers will hopefully find the slow burn pacing of the investigation rewarding at the series’ end, although Hart and Cohle’s mysterious pasts, slowly percolating to the surface, are far more compelling than the details of Dora Lange’s murder.
In “Seeing Things,” the superb second of eight hours, Fukunaga uses a dim visual palette and lets the camera linger on the Louisiana wetlands, strewn and scattered, as a metaphor for the detectives’ fractured states of mind. As Cohle reveals to his partner, his young daughter tragically died at a young age and his marriage could not handle the strain. He checked into a rehab facility and despite thinking with clarity about the criminal matters currently at hand, the sudden sparks that he sees flinging through the sky above him suggest he is still mentally confused. Dopey and drugged, Cohle is prone to chemical flashbacks, the result of his work as a narcotics officer in Texas.
Although Hart looked straight-laced in the pilot episode, he has something to feel guilty about this week. Even with a supportive wife and young daughters at home, he gets his rocks off at the bar before heading to a girlfriend’s house for some kinky sex with handcuffs. The dreary world of casework and dead ends brings him down and he feels that he needs these vices to bring him a boost. “You’ve got to decompress before you can go be a family man,” Hart tells another officer. However, wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) suspects he is being unfaithful.
In the Dora Lange case, Hart and Cohle are looking for a church where the slain young girl, found lashed to a tree in last week’s opener, was a congregant. They drift through Louisiana, find a group of working girls lurking at a trailer park – a “hillbilly bunny ranch,” the detectives say – who may know the whereabouts of this church where Dora found peace. And, likely, her murderer. As the detectives search for the church, Hart and Cohle are looking for their own salvation. There is real human frailty at the centre of both characters and in the surrounding woods. Perhaps that is what makes a character-driven mystery like True Detective so riveting – their roles as investigators are the only places where Hart and Cohle are decent and worthwhile.Next
Matthew McConaughey’s performance, dreary and wily in equal measure, may be the finest thing he has ever put on screen, and True Detective can only bolster his chances for Oscar gold for his charismatic turn in Dallas Buyers Club. Meanwhile, the actor’s brittle way of speaking and his gaunt, skinny physique (likely a result of losing 40 pounds for Dallas Buyers Club but still as significant to his character here) signify how his lost, tormented psyche weighs him down. Cohle’s nerves are frayed: he almost always looks half-awake, half-hallucinating. In a moment late in the episode, he steps out of the police car and sees a flock of birds flying in a looped formation that looks too perfect to be real. Is this a hallucination, or can beauty and nature still survive in such an impure setting? Chole is a character both pulpy and philosophical and McConaughey has been mesmerizing in the part so far.
Meanwhile, Harrelson is no slouch next to his old friend’s showier, more damaged portrayal. Hart is a man who likes being in control, but he is starting to slip into deceitful patterns. There is a real conflict within him, trying to clean up crimes while also dirtying his own reputation as a respected cop and family man. Hart makes a point to spit out his disgust at the prostitutes he interviews at the “bunny ranch,” criticizing the young girls’ indecency. That may not be the wisest thing for an adulterer to say and Harrelson is starting to reveal his character’s negative sense of moral judgment in provocative, pointed ways.
Right now, the only thing miring True Detective are the moments from 2012, when two cops interview the men years after the bizarre Lange case, when a similar crime pops up in the modern day. There is nothing wrong with this chronological device as a way to show how these two men have changed over a span of 17 years, but there are too many moments of Hart and Cohle going through very miniscule details of their own personalities. These details feel too written and somewhat unnatural within the context of an interview.
Dark and moody, True Detective also has a harsh disposition toward female characters. However, one thing bonding the two detectives is how protective they are of young girls. With Cohle’s daughter’s life cut short and Hart’s lack of time with his own girls, the two men transfer their will to be good father figures to bringing justice upon Dora Lange’s murderer. The show may takes place in a man’s world – tough, ugly and threatening – but what a vivid, uncompromising vision of pulpy masculinity it is. Hopefully, Hart and Cohle will find a sort of salvation in their own ashen hearts as the series develops.