Monday, October 27, 2014

"True Detective" Gets Its Man

This review is long overdue, but it took me ages to finally see the last two episodes of HBO's "True Detective." Minor spoilers ahead.

The best thing that I can say about "True Detective" is that it doesn't feel like a traditional long-form television serial or a feature film. It's found this wonderful balance between the two, where it enjoys all the high production values and star power of a studio-produced project plus all the slow burn, leisurely-paced, character study goodness that recent television series have been so good at supplying. Despite the shenanigans that HBO pulled at the Emmys, this is a miniseries of exactly the right structure and length for the story it's telling, and one of the best I've seen in a long time.

There's been a lot of talk about the participation of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as the leads here, because they're high-profile movie stars who are still in great demand, and it means that the line between film and television work is fading quick. What's important to note is that their star power is secondary to the fact that these are two excellent actors working at the top of their game. Harrelson and McConaughey play Marty Hart and Rust Cohle, a pair of massively flawed Louisiana ex-detectives who are being asked to recount the events of a murder case they worked in 1995 to investigators seventeen years later in 2012. The present-day framing device and adds a great deal, revealing that Marty and Rust are highly unreliable narrators and that time has taken a heavy toll on both their lives since their stint as lawmen and partners. The case itself, involving grisly murders and child abductions, is not particularly notable, but the in-depth examination of Hart and Cohle as they work through all the twists and turns is fantastic.

Rust Cohle is one of the highlights of the McConaissance, a drug-addled, philosophy-spouting atheist with an enormous amount of pain and loss fueling an asshole attitude and dialogue full of priceless non-sequiturs. It's the showier of the two parts and McConaughey gives it everything he's got. Rust sounds like McConaughey and shares a great deal of the same lackadaisical charm, but his demons are awfully close to the surface and they frequently get away from him. It's always a mystery how sane he'll be from one minute to the next. Woody Harrelson's in a more familiar role as the family man who just can't keep his libido under control and hates having his hypocrisy pointed out to him. "True Detective" would have been a treat with either of them as the sole lead, but their interactions are what really gives the show the edge.

The actors have plenty to work with too. Eight hour-long episodes spanning seventeen years give creator Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga the necessary room to construct a detailed universe with a lot of chances to experiment and explore. The structure of the show can change from week to week, and there's time for things like Rust's drug trips and the long take fight sequence at the end of the fourth episode. The labyrinthine mystery offers twists and turns that land the protagonists in all sorts of odd places. There are a few moments that almost cross the line into magical realism, and there's a wonderful ambiguity about some of the mechanics of how things operate. It's a dark, vile world to be sure, but one that's not without it's own strange beauty and moments of wonder. I love the Southern Gothic imagery and primordial atmosphere that suggest, perhaps, monsters could exist there, just offscreen.

However, as more than one critic has pointed out, no effort was made to give much character development to any of the secondary or minor players, most notably Marty's wife Maggie, played by Michelle Monaghan. It's frustrating because Monaghan's an actress I enjoy, and she's stuck in the thankless, perfunctory role of the domestic nag. She does a good job, and Maggie is a better version of this character than most, but her material is still terribly paltry. Also, all of Rust's philosophical musings and the incorporation of various mystical and religious symbols makes "True Detective" seem deeper than it actually is. It's easy to go down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole as the show goes on, but "True Detective" never strays too far from being a police procedural, and wraps up in fairly conventional fashion. It's a little disappointing, but only if you expect more from "True Detective" than what it's offering.

For lovers of a good, grisly crime story in the vein of "Zodiac," and "In Cold Blood," or for anyone who just likes watching great actors at work, this is not one to miss.


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