There are only good things about True Detective.
On one level, it’s a cracking murder mystery. A woman’s body is found next to a burning sugar cane field, under a big old tree, surrounded by (and also wearing) weird stuff that points to some kind of dark symbolic significance a crown of leaves, deer antlers, a twig pyramid that may or may not be a devil trap. It’s unlikely to be the first time this killer has struck. Won’t be the last either, unless they get him.
Sure, there’s the odd cliche of the genre a pair of mismatched cops, with difficult home lives (or a total lack of a home life in the case of one), drink, drugs, and more. But then TD is so smartly written (by Nic Pizzolatto) and performed, so jaw-droppingly beautiful too. Plus it’s so much more than a murder mystery …
The murder happened in 1995. But the story is being told 17 years later. The two detectives, whose own circumstances are clearly different to how they were back then, are relating the events, separately, to two further cops, in some kind of informal investigation. So many questions. Not just about what happened back then, whether they got the guy, whether he was the right guy; but also what has happened since, and why these new cops are interested again. It gives the whole thing a fascinating structure, a complex 3D puzzle to be filled in. There are other important memories painful, personal ones, of break-ups and lost children, and ways of dealing with those memories. Time and its passing is important here.
The dark one, a loner with a dim view of human nature; but a natural, true detective. Played spell-bindingly by Mr Right Now and probable Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey. The Taxman, the other cops (a stick-together herd of overweight southern pigs) call him, because of the large ledger he carries around with him everywhere, for his notes and his sketches.
The other one, played also brilliantly though the performance is bound to be partially overshadowed because it’s a straighter role by Woody Harrelson. Straighter, not straight. Marty has his issues too with drink, women, home. With what’s right and what’s wrong.
In fact, due to the structure of the thing, they’re each playing two roles the same men, but at different stages of their lives. And they both change over that time, even if we don’t know how or why yet. True Detective is at least as much about Rust and Marty, a character study, as it is about their investigation.
Both in what happened to that poor girl in a cane field outside the small town of Erath, the killer’s gruesome rituals and fetishisation. But also what’s going on inside Cohle’s head. He sees human consciousness as a mistake, an accident of evolution. We labour under the illusion of having a self, when in fact everybody’s nobody. The answer is to stop reproducing, “walk hand in hand into extinction”.
A scholar of horror and nihilism will find parallels in Edgar Allan Poe. Pizzolatto has talked of borrowing from the short stories of Robert W Chambers, and the influence of other writers and philosophers — HP Lovecraft, Thomas Ligotti, Emil Cioran. Certainly there is a literariness about True Detective. Not that you need to know about that stuff; it paints its own darkness pretty well too.
So it has movie stars and a movie director (Cary Fukunaga, who did Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre) to give it a big cinematic look. But the star with no credit is the scenery, mostly sliding slowly by beyond the window of an unmarked police (first syllable stress, PO-lice) car. I’ve never been there, but I feel like I have now, Louisiana captured. Flatlands, massive skies, shacks, plenty of weirdness and bible belt lunacy, the ghosts of lost children. Erath “is like somebody’s memory of a town, and the memory’s fading”, says Cohle. Then there’s the sad whistle of a freight train.
We don’t see that train, but it sounds to me like one of those real slow ones that goes on and on, rolling by. You sit and watch though, transfixed, maybe even after it’s gone, because it’s beautiful. Bit like True Detective.