“I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution… the honourable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.” It is Martin Hart’s luck he picked this day in 1995 to get to know Rustin Cohle, as the two Louisiana detectives reflect on one another’s outlook on existence. ‘Marty’, played by Woody Harrelson, is the seasoned detective, a work weary family man, pious as the people of the place he lives and regrettably inquisitive of his partner of three months. ‘Rust’, played by Matthew McConaughey, is a sharp tack of a detective but as bluntly spoken a person as there ever was, an occasionally hallucinating insomniac and a thoroughly nihilistic philosopher.
Both men have recently examined a crime scene of dreadful nature – a ritualistic murder with satanic undertones of a young woman which Rust hypothesizes to not be the first and, unfortunately, it ain’t gonna be the last. We’re informed of as much in a separate narrative occurring in 2012, running parallel to the ’95 investigation, in which Hart and Cohle (who experienced an impressive visual transformation) are being interviewed by two younger detectives regarding the case and how it may indeed not be over.
The modern scenes inform us of the broader aspects of the case in a retrospective fashion, whilst Hart and Cohle simultaneously reflect on the troubled relationship they had with one another and provide interesting personal insights into traits of their past partners. Above anything else it’s a master class in character development. The intrigue and morbid mystery of the whodunit killer case sometimes feels like it is merely the backdrop for what is actually an in-depth analysis of two highly contrasting characters’ outlook on the world and their coping mechanisms for the stress and torments of the job.
The performances are incredible. Harrelson gives no doubt one of his career bests as the weary veteran lawman, attempting to balance the weight of the case with family life, which on the surface is pristine and idealistic but beneath brims with marital tensions and is fraught with pitfalls. McConaughey is a flawless wreck. In the past he’s a shell of a man who lost his wife and child and is locked in a self-destructive spiral of narcotics abuse and intoxicated mirages. In the present he’s an enlightened pessimist – a logician of the most dismal sort who is still tortured by his past before the case and throughout his relationship with Marty.
McConaughey is shockingly good, able to convey the negativity and inertia of a destroyed soul whilst simultaneously being so understandable, his logic so plausible (scarily so) and his overall demeanor so strangely likeable. It’s a testament to his acting ability that he can bring such gravity to a character with this much of a bleak, deterministic perspective. You really won’t believe that this is the same actor when you re-watch Failure to Launch and How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days.
In a sense, True Detective is a conventional detective drama – there’s the brutal serial killer whose identity is a secret, the two cop partners who are at odds from the off, the chief who wants to take them off the case and a list of others. However, when conventions are achieved with this level of precision and understanding, investing in the characters and story becomes much more rewarding, the truth much more satisfying and the tension that much more palpable, than when, say, a tale breaks conventions wholly in order to establish itself as different. It brings to mind Fincher’s Seven (coincidently also ’95), a thoroughly conventional serial killer thriller, but one which adheres so accurately to the building blocks of its genre that it becomes a near perfect genre piece.
There’s a lurid style on display, from the typically brilliant HBO opening credits with its badass song and cool graphics reflecting the themes of zealous religion, isolation, desolation and female exploitation, to the polished grey-scale which accompanies every frame and, sexiest of all, a hallucinogenic scene in episode 2 where Cohle visualises neon lights racing past him as he drives, drug induced, down the late night highway.
Thus far there hasn’t been a moment of ease in True Detective. There’s a perpetual and uncomfortable tension that permeates the entire, dire scene, in both the modern day and the flashbacks, which provide the bulk of the narrative. It’s all at once disturbing, exciting, subtle, sleek and nerve shredding, and you’re compelled to watch these two men’s lives wither and writhe in the hunt for a beast, which, in a sense, provides context for the likeability of the flawed leading pair. The whole thing feels like a brilliantly dark, highly addictive and unpleasant dream, and, like a lot of dreams… there’s a monster at the end of it.
True Detective comes to UK shores on 22nd February 9pm, Sky Atlantic.