Wednesday, 30 April 2014

True Detective at its best


by Jian Farhoumand.



True Detective came out of nowhere two months ago and – after many a labyrinthine twist and turn – concluded with its gripping season finale on Saturday 12th. Where did this whirlwind come from and what exactly was it? HBO’s latest blockbuster series, brought to the UK by Sky Atlantic, created many a water-cooler moment during its eight-week run – the story of two jaded cops investigating a series of gruesome murders among the grassy bayous of Louisiana. True Detective took us by surprise as we nestled into our sofas, still convalescing from the bloody, vainglorious ending to Breaking Bad and still licking our lips (and wounds?) at the arrival of a new season of Game of Thrones. Despite what it had to contend with, however, True Detective somehow managed to sneak in and pull the rug from under us (and them), stealing all the thunder.

Although it arrived quietly and without fanfare, True Detective built steadily and progressively to a bombastic crescendo, going out in a storm of bullets, blood and bravura. The eight-part series, co-starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, was much more than we hoped it would be precisely because most of us had no preconceived notion of it until it had already begun. And ended. Admittedly, McConaughey was already back in our collective consciousness, riding high after winning this year’s Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and stealing a scene from Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Combine these two dexterous displays with McConaughey’s deft channeling of Rustin Cohle in True Detective and you behold his comeback triumvirate – or what The New Yorker has catchily dubbed The McConaissance.


While all and sundry are hailing McConaughey as the Comeback Kid for his prodigal return from a vapid romcom wilderness, we’ve forgotten that Harrelson, too, had dropped off our collective radar for some time – albeit returning sporadically in supporting roles in the likes of Hunger Games (2012 and 2013) and in the stereotyped ‘gay best friend’ part in support of Justin Timberlake’s lacklustre lead in damp squib romcom Friends with Benefits (2011). Some cynical critics claimed they couldn’t imagine Harrelson in a serious role after his long-term stint in lighthearted TV sitcom Cheers (1985–1993) and cinema cult comedy Kingpin (1996), alongside various other whimsical cameos in the likes of TV’s Spin City (1996) and cinema’s Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999). We forget Harrelson has a (very) dark side. Natural Born Killers (1994), anyone? Or how about the macabre, sticky ends that Harrelson’s characters meet in both The Thin Red Line (1998) and No Country for Old Men (2007)? After Volker Schlöndorff’s Palmetto (1998), we all should have known that Harrelson had a serious noir vein throbbing within him. Cue his entrance as True Detective’s Martin Hart.


Hart is a character born of a long tradition of violent screen cops, maybe best-typified by Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry (1971) – the no-nonsense cop willing to bend the rules to get the job done. For example, Hart has two young men arrested for having had the audacity to engage in a threesome with his underage daughter. Then he chooses to beat them up (viciously) in a cell in exchange for not having them charged with statutory rape. He also cheats on his long-suffering wife (sympathetically portrayed by Michelle Monaghan) regularly. Then, when his girlfriend (played by siren-esque Alexandra Daddario) leaves him, he bursts in and attacks her new boyfriend. Hart prefers action to words. He doesn’t like talking. When asked how he would best describe himself, he simply replies: "Oh, just a regular type dude." Then he adds, with a smile: "With a big-ass dick."

McConaughey’s Cohle, on the other hand, is the diametric opposite to Hart. Cohle is a much more cerebral character. An intellectual. A connoisseur (McConoisseur, perhaps?). If Hart is Dirty Harry, then Cohle is Agent Cooper – Kyle MacLachlan's Buddhist FBI operative from David Lynch's Twin Peaks (1990–1991). Cohle is self-reflective, meditative and pensive. The sort of cop who wants to think things through and do things properly. The sort of cop perhaps best typified by Elliot Ness in Brian De Palma's The Untouchables (1987) – a cop who did everything 'by the book'. So, at least initially, Cohle is the thinker while Hart is the doer. One is a scholar, the other a thug. When Cohle is partnered with Hart at the start of True Detective, we are presented with the classic 'Good Cop–Bad Cop' combo. Both characters are integral to the whole: two sides of the same coin; the yin and yang of Louisiana crime-fighting. At first glance they are so distinctly different that they bring to mind Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential (1997) featuring film noir’s quintessential good cop (played by Guy Pearce) and bad cop (Russell Crowe) partnership.


Cohle speaks in poetic-sounding crypticisms, propounding profundities such as: "I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. […] Maybe the honourable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing and walk hand in hand into extinction”; or “This place is like someone's memory of a town, and the memory is fading, like there wasn’t anything here but jungle”. Meanwhile, poker-faced Hart simply looks on in disgust and says things like: "Stop saying shit like that. It's unprofessional"; "Not everybody wants to sit alone in an empty room beating off to murder manuals"; or "Listen, when you're at my house, I want you to chill the fuck out"; and, maybe most pithily: "You are like the Michael Jordan of being a son-of-a-bitch." So these two characters are at different ends of the spectrum. We get the message.

Yet True Detective is not black and white. Although Hart and Cohle are initially portrayed as wholly distinct personalities, it’s not long till their edges start to blur. Being a well-thought-out series written by real-life academic, Nic Pizzolatto (a novelist and former assistant professor), the characters aren’t simple. Far from two-dimensional, Cohle and Hart start to reverse roles with Cohle’s behaviour becoming more action-packed and Hart’s more reflective. The series cuts back and forth between 1995 and 2012. The former scenes follow Hart and Cohle on the trail of a serial killer in 1995, and the latter show them seventeen years later, aged and greying, one still working, the other retired. What follows is a compelling series of murder and subterfuge, boldly directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, in which many exceptional moments and scenes stand out.


Yes, the six-minute, single-take, track-and-pan long-shot gangland scene in episode 4, Who Goes There, is exceptional and highly reminiscent of the verisimilitudinous opening long-shot of Robert Altman’s The Player (1992). Yes, the testosterone-fuelled fight scene in the police station car park between Hart and Cohle in episode 6, Haunted House, is a brutal, popcorn-choking moment. Yes, the shock-and-awe ending to episode 3, The Locked Room, is a monstrous cliffhanger leaving us with the slow-motion introduction of a new character ominously named Reggie LeDoux, looking terrifying and strange as he wanders menacingly through a meadow, machete in hand, naked but for tattoos, dirty underpants and a long, dangling gas mask (yes, a gas mask), leaving us wondering, WTF…


Despite this plethora of awesome moments, however, True Detective can probably best be summed up by a single scene in episode 5, The Secret Fate of All Life, in which the essence of the show is neatly distilled and in which we finally see the two partners’ roles reversing: After following a dark, twisting trail into the heart of Louisiana’s drug and prostitution underworld, Hart finds himself on the grassy perimeter of LeDoux’s secret bayou meth lab. Hart radios his location to Cohle who quickly arrives, ready for action. Cohle leads the way through the brush, adroitly spotting and silently pointing out hidden trip-wire boobytraps rigged with grenades. The pair duck through the long grass and branches until they come upon an incongruous, ramshackle, camouflaged building: LeDoux’s meth lab, finally. Cohle tells Hart to go back and radio for help. Hart refuses, saying he won’t leave Cohle to enter alone, so the two approach the house together. However, it’s clear that Cohle is becoming the more assertive of the two. They find LeDoux inside, again half naked and seemingly high. At gunpoint, they force him outside where Hart handcuffs him before going back inside to investigate.


Cohle stands guard and spots LeDoux’s partner, DeWall, emerging from an out-house a short distance away. Their eyes meet. Hart comes out of the main building, visibly disturbed by what he’s just discovered inside, marches straight over to the kneeling, cuffed LeDoux and matter-of-factly shoots him in the side of the head, killing him instantly. Cohle looks back over at DeWall who – having witnessed his friend’s execution – panics and turns to flee through the grass. Cohle pulls his gun, aims and starts firing. Just as one of his bullets appears to meet its target, DeWall happens to run through one of his own grenade-rigged trip-wires which immediately explodes. Cohle is now off the hook for shooting a fleeing man in the back as all evidence (i.e. DeWall’s torso) has been completely obliterated in a bloody, visceral mist.


Hart is now in shock. Cohle takes charge, glancing down at LeDoux’s lifeless body, and says quickly to Hart: “Get the cuffs off him before the blood settles. We’ve got to make this look right.” Hart follows instruction. Cohle goes inside to see for himself what had so enraged Hart: two kidnapped children are caged within – we soon learn that the girl is alive but the boy is dead. Cohle finds a loaded AK-47 amongst the criminal paraphernalia scattered around, emerges from the building and immediately starts firing into the brush, deliberately ensuring that multiple bullets hit tree trunks, branches and a rusting car. We realise he’s altering the crime scene to make it appear like he and Hart were fired upon first, on their initial approach.


If this isn’t gripping enough, what makes it all-the-more riveting is that (sprinkled throughout it) this scene repeatedly jumps forward in time, seventeen years into the future to 2012,­ where the visibly older Cohle and Hart are now being interviewed by two younger detectives and are recounting to them what “happened” in complete contradiction to what we actually see happening. So when we see Cohle and Hart initially creeping silently through the brush, we hear their voices (from the future) narrating how chaotic the scene is (which it isn’t) as they are being fired upon (which they aren’t) in a “shit-storm” of bullets. This jarring disconnection between their verbal renditions and the actual reality we are presented with create an exhilarating frisson, making us feel that we (the viewers) are in on a big, exciting secret that leaves us pondering the age-old conundrum of whether the end justifies the means. After all, two drug-dealing serial killers have just been dispatched, haven’t they?

But this clever scene isn’t done yet. We are then presented with yet a third timeline to which even more flash-forwards occur, this time to the police department’s shooting board investigation (presumably within a few weeks of the incident) in which we see Cohle and Hart sticking doggedly to their concocted story. The three layers of time compacted into this one scene, combined with the thrilling action within it and the contradictory nature of the narrations in regard to the action – which thereby draws us into the collusion – make this the stand-out scene of the entire series. And there were still three episodes to come.


If you watched the finale then you know what happens. If not, I won’t ruin it for you. Let’s just say that The Sopranos (1999–2007) scored 9.3 on IMDb; Breaking Bad (2008–2013) scored 9.6; and True Detective (2014 – 20??) is already up to 9.4 after only a single season. If that’s got you wondering whether there’s more to come then the answer is yes. Nic Pizzolatto is currently writing Season Two, and  – if rumours can be trusted – we might get to see Brad Pitt and/or Michael Imperioli cracking the next case. In the mean time, let’s dig out those other McConaughey-Harrelson classics that have been gathering dust on the shelf… Ed TV (1999)? Or, for the more erudite out there, Surfer, Dude (2008).

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