Most people still see Matthew McConaughey as the pretty boy, the Prince Charming of chick flicks. Those individuals clearly haven’t seen Killer Joe or Dallas Buyers Club. But how could I blame them? When I think of Woody Harrelson, I have to fight against images of Kingpin or his ridiculous haircut in The Hunger Games. Nonetheless, both have proven themselves great performers, as we can see in the new HBO series True Detective. Their appearance in a television series is a rare thing and worthy of our attention. True Detective starts when two detectives, Marty Hart (Harrelson) and Rustin Cohle (McConaughey), are called to an unusual murder scene. The corpse of a young girl, stabbed multiple times, is oddly displayed (Cohle believes it to be a ritualistic murder) along with many unknown symbols. This is a murder that will prove difficult to solve for the two Louisiana detectives.
Even before knowing the story of this television series, its title sequence will seduce you and begin to convince you of the series’s value.
Produced by Elastic (the same studio responsible for the marvelous Game of Thrones title sequence) and directed by Patrick Clair from Studio Antibody, this title sequence sets the pace for the drama that ensues. The concept of photographic double exposure is used to create breathtaking images portraying the characters’ internal demons. The title sequence contains images of the characters superimposed over sensual images of prostitutes, deserted (and polluted) Louisiana landscapes, and dirty buildings. In addition, the characters reveal themselves to us by the raw landscapes, the dull and gloomy lights, the dryness of scenery, and the old or abandoned factories. Gradually, from beginning to end, the images darken, reflecting greatly upon the series which, in each episode, goes deeper into its characters’ souls. The title sequence ends with animated fire symbolizing, in all likelihood, an ominous end to the series. Even the theme song “Far From Any Road” from the Hansome Family seems to have been written for the show. The first lyrics accurately portray the first episode’s atmosphere when Cohle and Hart arrive at the crime scene: “From the dusty mesa/ Her looming shadow grows/ Hidden in the branches of the poison creosote/ She twines her spines up slowly/ Towards the boiling sun/ And when I touched her skin/ My fingers ran with blood.”
The series is set and shot in Louisiana. Rural spaces and colorless landscapes match the deep dialogues between characters. Moreover, the scenery makes the oppressive atmosphere surrounding the murder investigation more tangible, a warning of the dangers to come. With such backgrounds, murder, poverty, addiction, pollution, manipulation, and prostitution just fit in.
The series utilizes two distinctive timelines, one to recall Hart and Cohle’s criminal investigation of Dora Lange’s murder in 1995, and the other to follow interviews of both Hart and Cohle by two other detectives investigating a very similar case in 2012. Both Hart and Cohle have changed a lot in seventeen years. On one hand, Hart (Harrelson) has quit the force and is now a P.I. We can also see he’s not wearing his wedding ring anymore. On the other, Cohle (McConaughey) has completely changed. He looks like a dirty hippie in contrast to his previously deliberate, clean look and disciplined way of life. Not working for the police anymore, he is drinking again (and a lot), and he’s fully aware of the state of his life. As the story progresses, you find yourself hesitating on which story compels you the most: the murder investigations or the changes in Hart’s and Cohle’s personal lives.
Both detectives were always different from one another. In 1995, Marty Hart defined himself through his family, his community values, and his role as a father and a husband. He legitimizes his affair with a younger woman by blaming his job-related stress when he is actually hiding his fear of change and death. He is a very social man which is the complete opposite of Rustin Cohle, who can’t seem to bond with anyone since his daughter died and his marriage fell apart. Cohle’s idea of himself is his job, as it is presented in the third episode. He is a pessimist, with strong nihilistic thoughts, interested in criminal psychology which alienated him even more from the rest of society and the other detectives. His questioning of faith, morality, religion, and human nature are worthy of Dostoyevsky characters. Contrary to Hart, who’s managing his family and personal issues, Cohle is focused on the job. He has nothing more in his life.
True Detective shows its quality though details. When you listen closely to soundtracks or dialogues between characters, you will often find yourself with a more focused view of the actions or the discussions taking place in the scene. For instance, in episode three, “The Locked Room”, there is a scene that powerfully symbolizes Hart’s and Cohle’s views on life. In this scene, Cohle brings back the lawnmower he previously borrowed from Hart. To return the favor, he mows Hart’s lawn. When Hart comes back to his home, he finds Cohle drinking tea, talking in a friendly manner to his wife (the wonderful Michelle Monaghan) while she prepares dinner. Hart takes Cohle’s presence in his house as a threat. Taking Cohle aside, Hart menaces him to never again be in Hart’s house without him being present. In this scene, Hart’s insecurities surface: he knows that he is not there for his family, and he cares enough about them to fear losing them to someone else. However, he can’t admit his faults, so he denies them. It shows his backwards way of thinking: he should be excused for his affair, but his wife, his possession, should not even be alone with another man. Conversely, from Cohle’s point of view, he was returning a favor. He mowed the lawn. He can’t see that drinking tea with his partner’s wife is a social taboo, especially since Hart forced him to meet his family in the first place. The scene ends on a dramatic and threatening note when Cohle asks frankly what Hart thought Cohle was doing when Hart wasn’t around, except mowing the lawn. Unable to admit his true feelings and fears, Hart simply tells him: “No problem. I just don’t ever want you mowing my lawn again. Alright? I like mowing my lawn.” This scene illustrates Cohle’s inability to blend into society, as well as Hart’s hypocritical view on life and family. These specific features explain, in part, the dynamic between the detectives: one is socially awkward and outspoken about his nihilistic view on life, and the other is in denial about who he is and what he believes in.
Just as with NBC’s Hannibal, HBO’s True Detective is proof of the undying interest for the film noir genre in television. Demons and darkness are always at bay in these series, and as long as they are well done, they will have a place. True Detective will use an anthology format, which means each season will feature a different cast and story. (It is confirmed that McConaughey and Harrelson will not be back for the second season.) Each season will present a “true detective” in a different time, place, and situation. If creator Nic Pizzolatto can get strong performers and acute artistic direction in each season like he has in this first one, this series will truly be a game changer for dramatic television series and traditional cop stories.