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?)
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