An epic serial killer procedural that can stand with the best of them, no matter the medium. Not that there are, on reflection, that many of those in the first place, and not that True Detective doesn't rip off the few there are whenever it feels like it.
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga
Written by Nic Pizzolotto
With Matthew McConaughey (Rust Cohle), Woody Harrelson (Marty Hart), and Michelle Monaghan (Maggie Hart)
Spoiler alert: severe
Content warning: the horror of pen-and-ink nudity
Sometimes you have to ask, "What is a movie, anyway?" The most functional definition would be a series of images that, when shown in rapid succession, exploit a flaw in our vision so that they appear to move.
So, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Channel 5 Weather, and that pornographic flipbook your ten year old cousin drew before she went into foster care are all, basically, the same thing.
That means you have to double back and add things that don't have much theoretical basis but produce the results that feel right. "Maybe if it was first aired on television, it's not a movie?" you ask. Leaving aside your kindergarten-level reasoning, if you think Steven Spielberg's finest work isn't a movie, I don't even know how to speak to you. "Okay, your adoration of Duel is a little off-putting, but it is technically a movie. How about if it's broken into episodes, it's not a movie?" Tell that to Das Boot, Berlin Alexanderplatz or World on a Wire. Hell, tell it to the Jedis, the Ents, and Captain America. Also, Duel is awesome. "Fine, then: if it's structured around commercial breaks, it's definitely not a movie-movie." This is probably as good a firewall as we're going to get; but don't bother applying that to HBO's True Detective.
The alternatives are to treat Detective as an eight-episode miniseries or seven hour and thirty-eight minute motion picture. Both have their places, neither are formally very different, and it probably comes down to how you viewed it in the first place: week-to-week in its initial run, or in one sprawling sitting, that you will reluctantly admit took you ten and a half hours, because you're a human being rather than a heartless, image-processing robot.
Not pictured: anything related in any way to what I just said, I assure you.
In the latter form, it plays almost every inch the 458 minute movie. People say that True Detective is the example par exellence of TV's technical equivalence with theatrically-released motion pictures, and while I don't quite agree with either prong of that double-headed thesis, surely not too many sounder cases for the proposition have yet been made.
It would interesting to remove the four-minute breaks of the closing credits and the (sublime) opening credits to see to what extent they render neutral scene transitions that would otherwise fail. But watching Detective with them (as one must since my experimental version doesn't exist) there was but a single one that obviously could not have succeeded with a more conventional cut. This is the clumsy segue that I'm not sure even a week-to-week schedule would have entirely saved, namely the transition from episode one to episode two, from Matthew McConnaughey declaring "You need to start asking the right fucking questions," to an unrelated voiceover by the same character.
Speaking of clumsy segues, that character, one Det. Rust Cohle, is very possibly the single most compelling one to be brought to life by any kind of moving image in years. And McConaughey is so pitch-perfect in the role that it's almost worth his recent diagnosis with lung cancer.
Aside from his primary character trait of smoking, Rust is a man for whom nihilism really is starting to approach an ethos, bubbling up into a kind of philosophical shock comedy that upbraids all the squares for their faith in God and human institutions. One can be forgiven (I hope) for completely failing to understand why no one wants to hang out with such a smart, interesting dude.
It was, however, probably possible to create Rust Cohle in all his nietzschean glory from a wholer piece of cloth than the cliche-ridden tatters of an ex-dad with a dead kid.
Detective certainly earns its penile nickname when Rust's pronouncements about the invalidity of all belief systems in the face of the evolutionary mistake of human consciousness—just for one example—are met with nothing but flummoxed hostility from the array of stupid hillbillies that evidently populates the length, breadth, and every depth of Louisiana, U.S.A.
It certainly doesn't earn it in any literal way, given its one-sided depiction of nudity.
But let's ignore Detective's unnecessarily retrograde objectification of female characters, along with the baffling popularity of softcore porn that you have to pay for, in a world where hardcore porn has been mainstream for a decade as a free service that comes with your Internet connection. Let's focus instead, as I was starting to say, upon its objectification of a whole region.
Hicksploitation is very much the name of the game in Detective, and Rust serves as our guide to their savage world. (Your mileage may vary on which true detective you identify with; if it's the other one, feel free not to let me know, for reasons outlined infra.)
Without passing judgment on whether or not this is an actual representational issue, Detective is all about presenting the American South as an irredeemable quagmire of idiocy, misogyny, sexual depravity, substance abuse, corruption, and the dumbest, most evil possible version of Christianity. Let's simply say that Detective, like any work of pulp fiction with pretensions toward mining local color for entertainment, is happy to focus on the most interesting aspects of the region, and—like with hookers and heroin in Thailand, ninjas and nerds in Japan, or supervillainy and mass destruction in New York—"interesting" will always be synonymous with the most prurient. And that prurience will be heightened—even fabricated—whenever and wherever they need to be. This is called "storytelling."
Welcome to the South!
One of these feckless hicks, however, is our deuteragonist, the straight-man to Rust's hilarious sophistry and the all-round despicable human-shaped machine you'll hate to barely tolerate, Det. Marty Hart. Marty's a good old boy, with all the unpleasantness that entails, possessed of the exact personality that is simultaneously attracted to yet entirely ill-suited for law enforcement, that of the enormously petty tyrant. Yet, slathered as he is in a sort of "aw, shucks" charm thanks to Woody the Bartender himself, it is a little while before we notice that he's neither too stupid to be cruel nor good-natured enough to be morally upright. Though not too long—it's only two and a half hours in before he starts committing violent felonies under the color of his authority in order to punish his first mistress for her infidelity, or rather Marty's somewhat idiosyncratic definition of it.
It says something pretty damning that the single healthiest relationship he has with a woman is probably with his second mistress, a then-underage former-prostitute whom he effectively bought out of sex slavery, and who, years later, offers anal sex as an expression of gratitude (plus interest).
By hour six, when he crosses pretty much every line with the women in his life that he hadn't crossed yet, you may find yourself actively praying for his death.
But no one's listening.
This line involves his eldest daughter, Audrey. Throughout the series, there are vague but aggressive suggestions that someone is molesting her—dolls arranged in gangbang poses, drawings of people having sex, and eventually the scene which prompts Marty to slap her across the face and literally call her a slut, which I believe is supposed to represent the sexual precocity associated with abuse victims.
Whatever happened to Audrey—if anything happened at all—we don't suspect Marty to have committed an act that heinous, despite his fallen nature. But his deeply toxic negligence is foregrounded when the parental reaction is to shame her for expressing herself, when the only shame she needs to feel is for her awful figure work.
These glimpses into Audrey's story represent perhaps the most aggravating dangling thread of the series. If it's also the single most brilliant narrative and thematic choice in the whole show, it doesn't mean it's not frustrating, too.
Marty's wife Maggie—ultimately, his ex-wife Maggie—laments that he was once a good man. This is probably not true. And yet: through Harrelson's performance—combined with the intimacy generated by spending almost eight hours living with this guy—one can see the striving man inside all the awfulness who wants to be better and, too late to do much good, may really have figured out how.
It would be unfair, though, to overlook what a terrible parent Maggie has also always been, and what a deliberately nasty person she can be pushed to become. "[Hu]man[ity] is the cruelest animal," I get it, I get it.
Recounting the plot of True Detective is pretty unnecessary and would wind up denser than a black hole swallowing up spacetime, but perhaps it remains useful to hit the highlights: a dead body is found on the set of Hannibal and Rust and Marty are assigned to the case; their investigations span years, many beers (Rust and Marty are both non-recovering alcoholics), and the end of their careers; finally, through diligence, mostly on the part of Rust but Marty helps a little, they uncover a vast conspiracy that implicates the highest powers in the state, yet it ends up with a shootout in Jame Gumb's basement anyway. Twice.
Detective doesn't hold your hand, or at least not for long and not often even when it was. The case is far more complicated than that sketchy outline might suggest, and the non-linear storytelling behind it could have posed a major headache. It is testament to Cary Fukunaga and Nic Pizzolotto's steady hands and the grotesquely compelling atmosphere they create, not to mention McConaughey and Harrelson's assured performances (and their great make-up technicians), that it all comes together, and either makes sense or seems to make sense, despite a bafflingly elaborate narrative unfolding over a crushingly long running time. Indeed, I only ever had to ask "Who the fuck is this guy?" once, and even then I still fully understood his plot function. (It was Sheriff Steve Garaci, for anyone keeping score.)
Above: the plot.
In terms of filmmaking itself, Detective is not, of course, so mind-blowing as it has been received in some quarters. But that is no doubt because I'm comparing it to the movie and television masterpieces of its genre, and not Full House.
To be sure, in its eight hours, there is no deficit of memorable and haunting imagery. I'm especially a fan of the burnt-up church in specific, and the treatment of the American jungle in general. But not every shot is a work of art suitable for framing, nor is every cut a master stroke. Though the editing does come closer to perfection, there are—rare—moments where it's easy to become confused who's even talking, without any apparent intention to obscure this on Fukunaga's part.
Detective is not even quite a sustained cinematic achievement on the level of, say, Hannibal. Still, Hannibal has too many advantages for this comparison to seem remotely fair (most importantly, Hannibal's giddy, grisly focus on dead bodies as objets d'art—but the count must include its fantasy-land design, its insistence on subjective experience, and its abstraction-through-montage, as well).
A more level comparison, which Fukunaga certainly seems eager for us to make, is to any given David Fincher serial killer piece—and it is, to Fukunaga's immense credit, not an unfavorable comparison at all. However, Fukunaga's commitment to the kind of sweeping visual gestures that buoyed The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—when its plot wasn't about to—is not quite as total.
Yet when Fukunaga elects to style, he is style. No review of True Detective, no matter how brief, would be complete without reference to the six-minute, astoundingly-ornate long take in episode 4 that depicts the robbery of a gangland stash house. As an action sequence, it immediately recalls Children of Men for its controlled chaos and sustained tension, and only fails to better it because Children of Men did it with a moving car, achieving a masterpiece of cinematography, computer technology, and timing that was, also, a masterpiece of camera engineering.
But what's funny about this long-take—even jarring in retrospect—is how clearly the seams on either side of it show. The entire sequence of which it is a part is an indulgence in a Heat-style action set-piece, and it sits at a nearly complete tangent to the actual story. The only reason Rust and Marty are involved at all in such uncharacteristically bombastic narcoterrorism is that they're chasing a lead to the killer through a biker gang, and Rust, former outlaw biker/undercover operative, must revitalize his old connections. This endeavor apparently requires making his services available for one of the most singularly underplanned heists in motion picture history.
It's all the odder, given that dressing up as cops to invade a home is actually a pretty brilliant germ of an idea, to the extent that I find it difficult to believe anyone who could come up with it would not immediately formulate the next, most obvious step, and shave their ludicrous biker beard so that they appeared, for more than three seconds, to actually be a police officer.
One might also rent or steal a couple of Crown Victorias.
So, from a script standpoint, one's tempted to describe it as a complete frolic. But, even at Detective's most seemingly-pointless moments, there is always character, and whatever else this sequence accomplishes, it is an object demonstration of the lengths to which Rust is willing to go—and the first suggestion that no man who truly believed in nothing could ever go so far as he does here, and not half as far as he ultimately must, to solve his case.
And, obviously, from a filmic standpoint, it is the high point of the entire series. Pulling a statistic directly from my ass, I'd reckon it as about a hundred times Fukunaga's average shot duration. If it does recall Cuaron, one must remember also that Children of Men did not limit its indulgence in spectacle to the one, signature sequence—and that Children of Men wasn't even two hours long. Without suggesting at all that the show would have better off without it, the unavoidable critique remains that True Dicks did it solely show off Fukunaga's own.
Certainly, Fukunaga—for reasons known only to him, or at least unknown to me—never attempts anything approaching the same complexity again, not even in the climax.
That disappointing climax.
I do not refer to those dashed expectations, held by some, that Detective might descend into genuine, Lovecraftian cosmic horror. I'm agnostic on the point as to whether that would have been more interesting—actually, it certainly would have been more interesting, in the most neutral possible meaning of the word—but given the gamble involved in that kind of ambition, the odds it would have been better strike me as very low indeed. And how could one fret, even if that is what one were hoping for? The threads that gave rise to those hopes are tied up in the neatest, most elegant way I imagine possible, barring one that addressed the substance of my own complaint.
No, the disappointment I claim is, as it so often is with me, a matter not entirely distinct from production design. What I thought I'd been promised was the unraveling of a demonic child-murder conspiracy that involved Louisiana's richest and most powerful players; and to a degree, this is delivered. The scene I hoped for, however, would have suggested Eyes Wide Shut—except this time the cult is actually dangerous, rather than a venue for Tom Cruise to experience sexual frustration.
Unfortunately, Detective is depressingly satisfied to instead wallow in the cliche of a preposterously squalid mansion that seems to have been built on or adjacent to the catacombs of Paris. It is, of course, packed to the rafters with every done-to-death cinematic index from every serial killer procedural you've ever seen, including smashed baby dolls and the starved-to-death body lashed to a bed from Seven. (Making matters worse is that we already had one shootout in a dilapidated shithouse, as witnessed during the demi-climactic false solution to the case, a bit more than halfway through the show.)
If it wasn't all a little much already, I'm half-convinced that the very edits themselves during the first confrontation between Rust and his suspect would synch up perfectly with those of the corresponding scene in Silence of the Lambs.
"No, no. Childress dodges to the right, Buffalo Bill dodged to the left. They're completely different scenes."
This isn't just aesthetic criticism, but a failure of narrative and visual design to support the whole point that, heretofore, True Detective had been seeming to make: that evil is not confined to the dirty margins of our civilization, but is present everywhere. (Which is why I say above that the footnoted treatment of Audrey's story is so perfectly right.)
It's unfortunate however, that in the end, instead of the cruelty beating in the hearts of distinguished old men in three-piece suits, what we're confronted with visually is just one more sex murderer with facial scars, a history of childhood abuse, and an inability to do the dishes. If your only knowledge of humanity were works like True Detective, you'd have cause to wonder why we just don't send all the weird-looking kids and rape survivors to extermination camps as a hybrid act of mercy and preemptive self-defense.
The scarring, I'll note, is so minimal that how he became a spaghetti monster in a surviving near-victim's imagination is really anyone's guess. And why his M.O. changes from prostitute-killer to pedophiliac child-murderer depending on what episode it is, is surely never adequately addressed—I guess it's nice to have a change of pace? (I am, however, taken with the theory—perhaps a bit too forgiving to Pizzolotto—that Errol Childress was sewing the seeds of his own destruction, attempting to create the very heroes that could oppose him, when it seemed that his evil, and his father's and family's evil, had never once been challenged.)
As for whether that makes for a satisfying narrative or not in the midst of all these tired, worn-out tropes, it's a good thing that Detective still presents as one of our best all-time deployments of those tropes.
Tropes are tropes, after all, because they're effective, and in the hands of a great filmmaker—or a potentially great one—they remain so. Fukunaga never once succeeds in making you feel like they're new, but he doesn't fail to make you feel that they're terrifying—and perhaps that is the most important battle, after all. (And on the subject of battles, as a pure
Then there's the epilogue, which is just right, a summation of themes and character that works on every level, even if the Rust Cohle in you would have somewhat preferred they died beneath the empty eye of a non-existent God.
In the end, True Detective is that mildest yet most frustrating of disappointments: it's only a great synthesis of things that already existed, plus the force mutipliers that are Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, rather than the revelatory innovation you might have thought you were promised. But it's a seven and a half hour work of art that remains compelling even in the extreme state of a marathon watch; and while other shows can claim the same, isn't that still kind of a miracle?
If the better is the enemy of the good enough, the best remains the enemy of the truly excellent. It's all right that True Detective is not the very best version of itself that it could possibly be. If this review perhaps seems as much like a litany of flaws as it does a celebration of its strengths, that's because a detailed accounting of all of those strengths would need ten times the space. Whatever you want to see True Detective as, it has to be said: it's a hell of a motion picture.
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