True Detective: The Long Bright Dark

True Detective, HBO’s newest entry in the damaged-man-in-a-damaged-world sweepstakes, is the story of two Louisiana State Police investigators in search of a killer of women. I’ve phrased that banal opening advisedly: judging from the pilot, this is the story of two investigators, not the story of an investigation or the story of a serial killer. And it is an excellent story.

Woody Harrelson is Marty Hart, a family man who loves his wife (Michelle Monaghan) and daughters, enjoys a cold beer after a long day, and has a good ol’ boy’s facility for plucking the perfect word out of thin air. He has been partners with Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) for three months, but only after discovering a horrific staged murder scene does he begin to get to know his partner.

Matthew McConaghey has never impressed me, but apparently I’ve been watching the wrong things. His portrayal of Rust is amazing, from the exhausted tension of his physicality to the thoughtful cadences of his conversations with Marty. When probed, Rust speaks in the sort of rough poetry we’d be embarrassed to utter aloud, but in True Detective that embarrassment is part of the point: at that point, Rust had lost everything, including an adherence to most social customs.

Rust’s language also reflects the unique origins of this series. According to the New York Times, creator Nic Pizzolatto pitched the entire series, with two episodes written and key cast members penciled in. Pizzolatto has now written every episode, and the whole first season was directed by Cary Fukunaga. (HBO and Pizzolatto plan to follow the American Horror Story model and present a new case, and a new cast, each season.)

Pizzolatto isn’t a native of TV Land, though. A homegrown Louisiana boy, Pizzolatto was languishing in academia when he realized (again according to the NY Times) “that his hunger for fiction was being fed more fulsomely by television than by the contemporary novels he was reading.” So he made it happen, seeing an opportunity for a new exploration of mimesis in his switch from novels to TV: “The voice may lie to you, but the image never will. So the audience can see for themselves where reality does not sync up with the story being told. And maybe the reason it doesn’t sync up is because it’s nothing nefarious. It’s the slipperiness of memory. It’s how we recolor the past with our own present desires and needs for rationale. And those kinds of explorations are the things I’m interested in and am obsessed about.”

It is the novelistic touches that make True Detective stand out from the dark depravity so readily available on our TVs. The first real conversation between Rust and Marty is masterful, with laugh-out-loud moments mixed in to honest character beats and a true sense of how transformative communication can be for the speaker, the listener, and the audience.

That reflexivity is built into the show, too. The “iconic” murder that brings Marty and Rust together (or does it?) takes place in 1995; the frame narrative is a 2012 inquiry into the investigation. Marty, with a little less hair, explains what he remembers, while in a separate room Rust, with a lot more hair, explains his version. 2012 Rust seems to have gotten over some of his demons and given in to a few others; McConaughey’s portrayal of two versions—two stages—of one character are just part of what makes him so astonishing here.

The end of the pilot makes it clear that the 2012 inquiry into the 1995 investigation isn’t just a frame narrative: there is something larger going on, and I won’t spoil what it is so you can discover it for yourself. In fact, I'm tempted to avoid describing the plot at all, as I'm not sure that the plot is really the main point, especially not in the pilot. But whether this show becomes a twists-and-turns whodunit or stays a haunted character piece with murder at its core, its nuances, its locales (shot in Louisiana!), its guest stars (Clarke Peters!), and its overall skill (the acting! the dialogue!) make it highly recommended.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

9 comments:

Freeman said...

So far I'm liking what I'm seeing. This show is incredibly moody and dripping with atmosphere. Both of the leads are owning their roles. I'm interested to see where this goes, and to see why Rust and Hart had a falling out.

Also, calling it now, Hart is having an affair with that woman who brought in the files, and Rust has him pegged.

Jess Lynde said...

I found this really compelling. No doubt because, as Josie says, it is about the detectives, not the case. And the framing device just enhances that aspect of the story. I can't wait for more next week!

I agree with Freeman about the lady with the files. Marty's reaction to her arrival immediately screamed "affair!" to me.

Paul Kelly said...

Excellent start. I wasn't going to bother watching this as McConaughey gets on my norks somewhat, but he was a revelation tonight. I thought I'd watch the first ten minutes and see how it went from there, but the hour flew by.

I agree with Jess and Freeman about Marty having an affair. I'm also going to guess that Cohle will eventually end up hooking up with Marty's wife. Cohle's a closed off character but he seemed to open up to Maggie. Once the truth comes out about Marty's affair, I suspect she'll find solace in his arms.

After the turd which is Helix, suddenly I feel good about one of the new shows. Thanks for the recommendation, Josie, you handsome devil.

Heather said...

Josie,
Love your review. It's really beautifully written. I liked episode 1 a lot. A lot a lot. Matthew M is quickly becoming my new Woody Harrelson. As in I fell in love with WH some time back and will watch anything he's in! McConaughey is mesmerizing. Love the anthology plan for the series too! Can't wait to read more of your thoughtful reviews!

Josie Kafka said...

Heather, at this point I don't plan to review all the episodes. It's a great show so far, but I'm unwilling to commit. I've been burned too many times before. :-)

ChrisB said...

This one got a lot of good press, so I went into it with a healthy dose of cynicism. Like Paul, however, I was caught off guard by how good it is. Matthew McConaghey can act! Who knew?

I missed the hint about Marty's affair, but Rust's relationship with Marty's wife worried me right from the start.

I'm looking forward to seeing where this one goes.

sunbunny said...

I find it funny how Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey were once - I don't want to say jokes, so let's go with unappreciated - and now are both known as incredibly talented dramatic actors. Especially McConaughey. Ten years ago, who would've thought he'd ever be the favorite for an Oscar? (Still haven't seen Dallas Buyers' Club shame on me).

Josie Kafka said...

I'm trying to rewatch all of the episodes before the series finale, and I was delighted to see just how much this episode benefits from that sort of retrospective rewatch. It's not just clue-hunting (which is fun in itself), but hearing certain tensions in the frame narrative that a person couldn't know to listen for the first time.

Juliette said...

Just catching up on this now. Unlike seemingly everyone else on the planet I've always liked McConaughey! Including when he was doing romcoms and the most bizarre but sort of awesome guest spot on Sex and the City. But his performance in Dallas Buyers' Club is genuinely fantastic and the Oscar was well deserved, and its great to see him acting on that level again here. I love Harrelson too (possibly in a different way).

the only downside is, if it's gonna be a different cast and story every year, I'll probably only watch the first series. I fall in love with shows because I love the characters. If they change slowly enough (as on ER) I'll stay, but this sounds like a one-shot sort of thing. (I also only watched the first season of 24, which kept its characters but seemed pointless after the first season - that might have benefitted from changing cast as the concept was the hook, rather than the characters. But that's a different issue!)