A southern noir serial killer murder mystery, following an odd couple of detectives who disagree about road trip philosophizing, and a story told by unreliable narrators, in two timelines, with meth dealers, satanists and some literary references, for good measure. So goes my attempt to sum up HBO’s True Detective in one sentence. It’s probably more useful to say that it’s a very good show.
Or more correctly, the first four of its eight-episode run have been very good. It is at once eerie, funny, occasionally frightening, a little obnoxious, strange and entertaining.
Our protagonists are two detectives, Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), and the plot follows two mysteries, separated by 17 years. In 1995, Hart and Cohle team up to track down a serial killer with a penchant for occult spectacle, and the deeper they get into the case the more each man unravels.
In 2012, Hart and Cohle, badgeless and battered, are interviewed separately about the events of 1995, and about each other. Two new detectives are investigating a new murder with similarities to the original case, but it’s obvious that they’re interested in more than comparing notes. The modern mystery is twofold: what happened to destroy Hart and Cohle, and what’s going on with this new investigation?
But neither Hart nor Cohle want to co-operate, exactly, and between their personalities, personal demons and the sticky plot, it becomes slowly clear they aren’t trustworthy narrators. Hart pretends to be a regular family man, abiding by the world’s boundaries. Cohle, who’s also a bundle of contradictions, has hallucinatory visions from a past of drug abuse and is obsessively self-controlled – even with his binge drinking, if that makes any sense. One plays dumb and the other plays smart. With each of them telling skewed stories, and the 1995 hunt slipping into the surreal, it becomes clear that there’s probably only one “true detective” meant to piece this puzzle together, and that detective is you.
And it’s great fun. McConaughey outdoes himself (again) at playing a captivating weirdo, and he makes his unlikely character convincing in all kinds of ways. His bleak, sometimes annoying proclamations (“We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self.”) are redeemed by brilliantly deadpan cracks (Hart suggests an evangelical tent congregation has moved, Cohle quips: “Tents usually do.”) and he plays a functional addict – hyper-self-aware and painfully tense – extremely well.
Harrelson, meanwhile, gets amusingly and understandably fed up with Cohle (“Let’s make the car a place of silent reflection”), even as he undermines his straight-man act. The banter is uneven and can verge on melodramatic, but Cohle’s witticisms and sheer awkwardness, along with Hart’s quiet moments of exasperation, usually make up for the flaws.
And like Cohle, the show itself can be delightfully and creepily weird. Director Cary Fukunaga lingers on bizarre bits of Louisiana’s landscape and finds clever ways to play with perception. (In one still scene, a ship, of which only the top half is visible behind a hill, slowly moves in the background, creating the illusion of the background moving past the foreground.) T Bone Burnett, master of Americana, provides all the right music: eerie drums in a desolate church, rangy guitar on the road and terrifying God-knows-what for a distant shot of a man in his underwear wandering the swamp with a machete.
True Detective may fail to reach the high bar its set itself – I didn’t even get to the allusions to Ambrose Bierce and Joseph Conrad – but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching. This story is a one-off for the writer, director and cast; no matter what, Cohle and Hart aren’t coming back after episode eight. Anything could happen.
But the show is really worth it for the tricky storytelling, the careful details and the strong performances (including from Michelle Monaghan, who does a lot with little as Hart’s wife). Don’t get me wrong, True Detective is grim, dark and occasionally pompous, but it earns every minute of the time you invest in it.
Orginal article here