TV Review: True Detective

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this review unless you have watched True Detective – episode one

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Ever since those pesky Scandinavians rocked up and ushered in a ‘golden age’ of crime drama with the likes of The Killing and The Bridge, it seems that every week has welcomed a new tale of unsettling melancholy, suffocating atmosphere and flawed heroes who, like the nightmarish murders they investigate, hide an inextricable mess of horrors within. The Returned, Southcliffe, Broadchurch, and Hannibal are some of the main culprits, but now we can add True Detective, a dark, quietly disturbing slice of purgatory, to the growing list of reasons to sleep close to a baseball bat. With the light on. Clutching a nice cuddly teddy-bear.

The plot, of course, centres on two cops (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) as they investigate a spate of murders across Louisiana in 1995. The body of former prostitute, Dora Lange, is found posed in worship to a lonely tree, blindfolded and wearing a crown of antlers, with a satanic symbol painted across her back in a style redolent of Hannibal’s ritualistic symbolism. A twig latticework, known as a devil’s nest, is found near the body. All signs seem to point to this being the work of a serial killer, and sure enough, another latticework is soon found in the dilapidated playhouse of a girl who went missing five years earlier.

True Detective plays like a harrowing morality play dressed in a mesmerizing cinematic aesthetic as writer Nic Pizzolatto uses the familiar tropes of the genre (weird murders and two polar opposite detectives) to lure us into the story before hitting us with a deep, painful exploration of character and morality. As such, the lead performances are vital.

Much has already been said of Matthew McConaughey’s renaissance (a transformation from rom-com meat-bag to possibly Hollywood’s best working actor), but anyone who still needs convincing of his talents need only witness his unsettling performance as Rusty Cohle.

A barely-functioning addict with a penchant for expounding dark philosophies, Cohle is already a long way down the path to destruction when we meet him in 1995, meditating beneath a cross in his vapid apartment, his wife and daughter lost to him along with his faith in humanity: “I think that human consciousness was a tragic misstep in human evolution.”

His partner, Martin Hart, isn’t much better-off either. On the surface a charming, all-American family-man, Hart hides his insecurities and philandering ways behind a vale of Christian values. The narrative is built around their odd couple pairing with their road-trip bickering only adding to the sense of unease.

The twist, though, is that the plot is unusually split into two strands. Alongside the 1995 investigation, Cohle and Hart are being interviewed in 2012 by detectives re-opening the case. It’s clear the intervening years have not been kind to Cohle. His demons and addictions look to have finally beaten him and McConaughey’s Dallas Buyers Club weight-loss gives Cohle the weightless, soulless look of a man waiting for the persecution of life to end. As for Hart, he’s still keeping up the gregarious every-man routine, but you get the feeling it’s less believable 17 years on. We learn that Cohle and Hart’s relationship drastically deteriorated in 2002, a subtle twist that pulls focus from the murder as we begin to ask: what happened in the intervening years to destroy these two men?

There’s an air of Southcliffe and Top of the Lake in the way that Cary Joji Fukunaga shoots Louisiana as a character, lingering over the derelict, decayed aspects of its mystical bayou to create an eerie, so-heavy-it’s-palpable atmosphere. Its southern gothic undertones (religious imagery, violent actions and troubled characters) make it feel like we’re slap-bang in the middle of a Cormac McCarthy novel. T Bone Burnett’s pulsating soundtrack of echoing drum beats only adds to the feeling that we’re trapped in some kind of hypnotic purgatory.

What’s even better is that True Detective is an anthology series – a second series would focus on a whole new plot and set of characters – which means that Pizzolatto is free to do whatever he likes these characters. Anything could happen, so expect more than a few gob-smacking twists to befall Cohle and Hart before the eight episodes are through. It all bodes well for True Detective, a pulsating, melodic, frightening crime-drama. Now, I’m off to spend the rest of the week hiding under my bedcovers alternating between sobbing and dry heaving. 

Click here to watch the trailer for True Detective

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