Hauntingly bleak and austere, HBO’s existential detective procedural is a vivid, macabre account of cult conspiracy in the marshy southern bayous - bolstered by the electrifying turns of its two leading players
True Detective’s opening titles cast a long shadow. As the mournful twangs of The Handsome Family overlay a ghoulish collage of overlapping double exposures, we’re bombarded with grisly crime scene photographs and rural Louisianan landscapes, fiery bursts of crimson and scowling actor close-ups. Far from any Road is the attending song and testament, an apt theme for a series that upends generic cop conventions in favour of its own otherworldly environs. Right from the offset, this is a show that subverts. Far from your typical whodunit drama, Nic Pizzolatto’s dazzling eight-parter brazenly establishes itself as a cinematic outlier.
We begin our story in 2012. Two weather-beaten men are ill-at-ease in sparse interrogation rooms. Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) is a spindly puzzle of a man – chain drinking his way through cryptic, rambling monologues about the nature of evil and existence, drearily reproachful of a world that robbed him of an infant daughter. Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) is his ex-partner: ostensibly clean-cut, if a little sterile. There’s a bubbling intensity that defines both characters. Casting themselves back to January 1995, they begin to recount the ritualistic murder of Dora Lange, a troubled hooker viciously slain in the swampy everglades.
Mounted with a makeshift halo of deer antlers, Dora’s corpse cuts a grim figure, bowed beneath the branches of a contorted willow tree, her sullen skin scrawled with offbeat cultish symbols. Bound and beaten, she’s fenced in by witchy twig effigies and perplexed cops. The image is indelible, its gothic overtones lingering in the psyche. Drawing upon the gothic fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Pizzolatto imbues his tale with the unnerving mythology of cult films like The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973) and the macabre beauty of works like Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-Ho, 2003) and Seven (David Fincher, 1995) to great effect. Unearthing the twists and turns involved in Rust and Marty's partnership, the show explores three interlocking timelines as we begin to obsessively excavate an ever-growing enigma.
An ex-undercover narc, Rust’s past tragedies inform a brilliantly pessimistic worldview, embodied by nihilistic soliloquies straight out of a Nietzschean playbook. They're punchy and poetic, testifying to the ills of humanity with haunting, lyrical tones. Pizzolatto’s dialogue soars, McConaughey is captivatingly unhinged.
Marty, on the other hand, is a well-meaning Christian. He’s church-going and well-balanced, and of course, a dyed-in-the-wool ‘family man.’ Expectedly, his marriage to the terrifically fierce Maggie (brilliantly embodied by a superb Michele Monaghan) is plagued by philandering. He’s barely present in the lives of his daughters. His alcoholism is rampant. An unwavering faith in conservative American ideals ultimately proves farcical. With each partner embodying distinctly disparate personas, True Detective features some of the best two-person interplay you’ll ever see.
Much has been written about True Detective’s role in revitalising the acumen of McConaughey’s so-called ‘serious’ acting, (the infamous ‘McConaissance’ in full-swing here) but make no mistake: this is a bi-focal character study, relying on the brilliance of both its leading men to really work. In the hands of a lesser contemporary, Rust’s proclamations would be pretentious and affected. Marty’s hypocrisies would be caricatured and dull. But here, a captivating dynamic emerges. Rust’s distinctive brand of pessimism clashes with the pretences of Marty’s duplicitous lifestyle, and the ensuing results are exhilarating.
Undermining the paradox of a ‘secular’ society, True Detective picks apart the relationship between American religiosity and power, examining the imbalance with biting wit. Balancing its gloominess with healthy doses of mordant, black comedy, an absorbing mystery unfolds with dexterously paced set pieces and engrossing chamber drama. Examining the human need for solace and redemption, Rust and Marty’s investigation leads them into the darkest recesses of the human condition, exposing the blackness that lurks in Louisiana’s religiously ordained social structures. In the end, the identity of the killer is secondary to the real malevolence of the tale. This is not just a story of institutionalised depravity, but rather the inherent darkness of the human condition itself. It's not just systemically engrained. It's innate, and for that reason, impossible to ever truly overcome or surmount.
With all episodes penned by Pizzolatto and directed by Cari Joji Fukunagua, there’s a consistency of vision that defines this show. Whilst a lot of focus was afforded the show’s stunning one-take set piece, Fukunagua’s evocation of the Louisianan landscapes is what really ties this story together. Shot in muted tones, these 35mm landscapes are stained and worn. ‘This place is like someone’s memory of a town,’ Rust remarks. ‘And that memory’s fading.’ Indeed: everything in this world seems to be crumbling, but in those cracks, the brilliance of its bleakness bleeds through.
True Detective is available on Blu-Ray, DVD & HBO Max