Image A Sound A+ Extras B-
"The Long Bright Dark," "Seeing Things," "The Locked Room," "Who Goes There," The Secret Fate of All Life," "Haunted Houses," "After You've Gone," "Form and Void"
by Jefferson Robbins SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. On the original 2003 recording of The Handsome Family's "Far from Any Road," husband-and-wife duo Brett and Rennie Sparks intertwine their voices sinuously, trading the song's lonesome-death verses on equal footing. Her part pared down for the mesmeric opening credits of HBO's "True Detective", Rennie's whisper becomes a sudden intrusion, jarring both the lyrical and visual narrative. It's a hint of what's to come in the eight-episode series itself. When a woman character exerts an active pull upon the story of tormented Louisiana State Police detectives Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), it's an interruption, a vitriolic hiccup. Prompted by Marty's stalking and volcanic abuse, his much younger mistress Lisa (Alexandra Daddario) reveals his serial infidelity to his wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan). To poison Marty for his adulteries, Maggie seduces a drunken Cohle. The two cops have no female peers, only suspects, victims, bereaved mothers, hookers, and strippers to be interrogated, rescued, or ignored.
Maggie, hardened by long exposure to their toxicity, calls them "crude men who thought they were clever." The women closest to the leads in this Deep South semi-Gothic seem to exist as reflectors of their men's psychosocial complexes. They aren't even allowed to have Southern accents. It's easy to stop at a blanket diagnosis of sexism, just as it's easy to get hung up on the heart-of-darkness nihilism that tinges the early episodes, but watch the subtleties and you can see the needle ticking towards the centre, from brutality to accommodation, from fallen-world Nietzschean dread to...hopeful Manicheanism? Over time, our heroes moderate their postures in a cowardly, foxhole-atheist manner--because, really, the straightest path goes nowhere, and their road through the woods keeps diverging on them.
Its gender issues may be part and parcel of creator Nic Pizzolatto's series, which has much to recommend it despite being shallower than it pretends and annoyingly embraced in the kind of Reddit threads you're better off not visiting. It's a cop-procedural inquiry on male rage and rootlessness that starts from the premise that men are just no goddamn good, even less good than you've been told--that life has to terrorize us out of being savagely self-certain assholes. Because of its narrative conceit, we see the show's women only through that particular lens. It casts a jaundiced eye on Pizzolatto's home state of Louisiana (where it sees mostly white people¹) and aims for Chinatown by way of Cormac McCarthy and Cthulhu, then stacks metaphysics on top. Michael Mann is another touchstone, both in the show's flailing machismo (though Mann's men don't talk this much) and in a bravura heist, halfway through the series, that recalls Heat. Pizzolatto and Cary Joji Fukunaga, writer and director, respectively, of every episode, generously bestow showcase moments on their two male leads, who convincingly bear the weight of characters living out a self-destructive seventeen-year arc. There are monologues that compel (and some that bore); there's a wrung-out performance from McConaughey that puts him within reach of an Emmy in the most remarkable year of his career, a praiseworthy visual sweep and sense of the Gulf Coast as a place, and a story whose core conspiracy is interchangeable with a diabolical pagan religion, neither of which may exist at all. It's quite a feat--and so ambitious it's little wonder that Pizzolatto, telling his men's tale, finds his secondary female characters a distraction. That doesn't make it less sad.
McConaughey sports the same gaunt physique here that carried him through The Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyers Club, rubbed raw and just barely this side of handsome, his profile ready for a turn as Lincoln. This is a fascinating phase, when actors who've gained fame for their looks (cf. Tom Cruise) begin toying with themselves cosmetically, marring their beauty for purposes of story. McConaughey goes farther, tampering with his rhythms of speech, roughening his voice as the narrative proceeds from 1995 to 2012, smoking and drinking with such laconic gusto you can practically smell him. Cohle joins Marty's section of the Louisiana Criminal Investigations Division with a massive set of backstory tags: bereaved dad, dry drunk, drug-scarred undercover operative, atheist, survivalist, meditator, string theorist, and a dude who sometimes hallucinates for the fuck of it. Marty's the sort of ex-jock who becomes a cop and gets married because that's what you do--not much below the bluff surface save his cheating heart, into which he has no insight. This odd couple starts off probing a ritualistic murder in the Louisiana cane fields and ends, seventeen years later, off the force and under interrogation by fellow detectives (Michael Potts and Tory Kittles) over new, similar murders--not to mention Cohle's bizarre pursuits in the decade since his resignation. (If the timelines get confusing, simply watch the hairpieces.)
The crime psychodrama is peppered with occult mutterings, as victims and witnesses reference a "Yellow King" and a dread underworld-to-come called Carcosa. These breadcrumbs, drawn from an 1895 short story collection by Robert W. Chambers, generated a large part of "True Detective"'s online heat, exciting devotees of the pulp literary school that found its most popular expression in H.P. Lovecraft.² So frantic was fans' beachcombing of the show for arcane waypoints, I'm surprised no one marketed a replica of Cohle's ledger-sized journal à la The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. Ultimately, the show makes no formal claims to be based on Chambers's work, and need not--he's been in the public domain for decades. If the backwoods-serial-killer thread of the show doesn't fully commit to the supernatural, then we should perhaps read those supernatural elements for what they're usually meant to be in fiction: metaphors. "Carcosa" is coming to the Deep South, the series argues, because governmental indifference, environmental pillage, educational decay and exploitation, social service dysfunction, and base human fuckery herald it.
This is one of the show's triumphs, overlaying allegory across a sickened landscape. It's there in a dozen cast-off asides from Cohle--when he notes, for instance, that had a mentally disabled man merely been under psychiatric care when it counted, he might still have his testicles. The evangelical honcho in the detectives' district, Rev. Billy Lee Tuttle (Jay O. Sanders, a solid marvel of a character actor), has tentacles in the state police and prospers in part from tax money for his church schools. A witness suffers blinding headaches and rotting fingernails from years of industrial chemical exposure. Records that could help close the case have been lost to innumerable hurricanes. And thanks to the pillaging oil and gas industry, Cohle's probably right in predicting the whole bayou country will "be underwater in thirty years anyway." Rapists and killers of women and children--whole lineages of them--walk free because this land is their land. Carcosa is no fourth-dimensional realm peering down on our own, as Cohle and the riveting villain Errol Childress (Glenn Fleshler) would have it. Carcosa is home; and if Jesus waits in all our hearts for us to call on him, so does the King in Yellow.³
On a (visibly) more expansive budget than HBO typically allows, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Jane Campion's "Top of the Lake") abets this vision of a blighted land. His camera frequently goes airborne to map the highways, backroads, and inlets of "True Detective"'s setting, and his ground-level exteriors capture a broad canvas. (Compare with HBO's other Louisiana-set series, "True Blood", where every entry feels like a bottle episode no matter how many times they change locale.) Something as simple as Cohle and Marty pausing to take a roadside leak against the backdrop of a looming natural gas rig, or Cohle walking a grassy field while a massive barge heaves past along a ship canal behind him, takes on freight and import. It's a world unfamiliar with grace, and Pizzolatto, a Louisiana native, seems to have it in for the evangelical Christian sects that govern discourse in his home state. Cohle belittles a tent revival meeting (led, to be fair, by a preacher whose "wind between the stars" vision of the Messiah sounds a lot like Nyarlathotep⁴) and Marty accepts theology lessons on "forgiveness" from a former child prostitute (Lili Simmons) to justify an affair with her. Tuttle's empire apparently harbours such a raft of butchers, church affiliation starts to look a lot like the vilest wing of Carcosan perversity.
This, plus the Chambers retro-nerdery and the kind of privileged hostility to women displayed both by the lead characters and the camera eye⁵, helps explain "True Detective"'s adoption in some of the less savoury corners of the Internet. Atheism, anti-feminism, and alpha-male "evolutionary psychology" seem to overlap for those Elliot Rodger acolytes out there seeking to assert their supremacy, and an atheist, self-denialist, visionary supercop like Cohle feels built as their surrogate. Cohle takes the mantle of victim in his one-off with Maggie (and she accepts the role of victimizer), and once Lisa has upended Marty's marriage--comeuppance for breaking into her home and assaulting her boyfriend--Cohle lays it all at the feet of the abused mistress. "You can't spot crazy pussy?" he asks Marty, whose views of his wife and troubled daughters are as bent and tortured as Cohle's views of...well, the world, basically. (Has any show ever worked the "another man mowing your lawn" metaphor so literally, and so hilariously?) Neither man can be the out-of-bounds vigilante cop the case demands while there are feminine attachments dangling. It's a resignedly single Marty and a beer-washed, misanthropic Cohle who bring the unrighteous to account. They've recognized their contagion, and they've self-quarantined.⁶
That's the protagonists' baseline, though, not where they finish; male supremacists who hold "True Detective" close are missing the end of the arc. Pizzolatto writes from a place of deep pessimism about the human (specifically male) condition, which means his characters' growth inches through stages that are far, far behind what we'd expect. The mythopoetic hero's tale is one of awakening, in the face of obliteration, to categories beyond opposites. Rust Cohle and Marty Hart are so base and brutal and myopic, their awakening is the step before that: recognizing binaries, not just absolutes. The porcelain angel and devil tchotchkes on Marty's girlfriend's dresser, the notion that Cohle may have heard his dead daughter's voice at the tip of a killer's knife--these point them towards something as simple as two-dimensional thinking. Progress, of a sort, however primitive. It's a plea that gross masculine assumptions about one's place in the world be questioned. If "True Detective" is a gloss on nihilist literary granddad Cormac McCarthy, it's the McCarthy of The Road, who finds pyrrhic hope in the survival of one child--not the McCarthy of Blood Meridian, where any dance with the Judge tramples the world into its grave.⁷ Cohle and Marty get off easy. In fact, they're blessed.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
It's really too bad about the wax dummy in McConaughey's seat every time Cohle and Marty take a drive somewhere. The view is practically always from the passenger's side, and something about the lighting and background compositing renders the star a dull, hepatitic yellow. It's a horrifying distraction, because once the leads step out of their cruiser, "True Detective" becomes a showpiece for HBO's Blu-ray output. The 1.78:1, 1080p image maintains crispness, depth, mild grain, colour warmth, and the crucial chiaroscuros of nighttime crime scenes illuminated by floodlights. (The show was shot in 35mm with the Panaflex Millennium XL2, so the grain is native.) The stray shot rings with fine edge haloes, suggesting it was digitally rescaled in post. Blacks are deep, not nuanced, sort of like Rust Cohle. Whenever the story lists into feverishness, as any story about crime, drugs, and the South must, Arkapaw's lensing makes the fever visible, as in Cohle's efforts to infiltrate a ring of idiot bikers. There are at most three episodes per disc, leaving plenty of room for picture and sound encoding.
Speaking of which, one of the more disturbing things about the series is not the gore or the incest or the dire ruminations on the void, but the way Cohle's lips smack when he takes a fat draw on a Camel. That's the kind of attention paid to audio detail in the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. The balance between foregrounded chatter and backfield atmospherics is precise and enveloping, while musicologist-composer T Bone Burnett gets a loving place in the soundfield with the grind and chug of his industrial-naturalistic score. (This and Brian Reitzell's work on NBC's "Hannibal" have done a lot in the past year to push past traditional ideas of how music can be deployed in ambitious TV drama.) Burnett, of course, also gets to play in the diegetic reaches, choosing the tunes that issue from jukeboxes and radios along the detectives' search. And watching Cohle torpedo his way through the most heavily-armed project housing in East Texas would not be nearly so satisfying if the mix weren't so fabulously directional: Shouts and gunfire come at him from around every corner. The only dialogue you're likely to miss are the lines the cast members intentionally gum up in their approximations of Southern lazy-jaw.
Pizzolatto teams up for an audio commentary with Burnett, for some reason, on the episode that should rightly feature Fukunaga: "Who Goes There." You know, the one with the vaunted six-minute tracking shot? About that... The Episode Four set-piece is said to be a single take without edits, but I've found no direct quote from either Fukunaga or Pizzolatto saying outright that it's unstitched. Watch the camera pan up to a passing helicopter at the halfway mark, or dodge around a dark corner, or lose Cohle behind a line of hanging laundry--there's certainly room for an invisible splice. No matter, it's a great scene, and I'd forgive all if Cohle had just once hauled white-supremacist biker Ginger (Joseph Sikora) by his stupid beard-ponytail. Pizzolatto and Burnett are silent for the bulk of the shot, except to murmur admiration, and the yakker offers long stretches of the same comfortable silence elsewhere. Burnett contributes the best juice when he's talking about his choices for diegetic music, like outlining the provenance of Bo Diddley's "Bring It To Jerome." He has relatively little to say about his own score, save to praise his studio collaborators and point out that he doesn't build to a "theme" per se until the closing episode. Pizzolatto grumbles vaguely about anonymous Internet comments and confirms my thoughts about Cohle and Marty's individual blinkered mindsets: "Neither will admit the possibility of grace in others or themselves. They only go about things one way...their way."
Pizzolatto and Burnett return for commentary on Episode Five, "The Secret Fate of All Life," this time alongside executive producer Scott Stephens. The trio approach injects some life: Burnett proves an adept analyst of a given scene and Pizzolatto is more excitable this time through. He's also prone to halting his observations the scene, the setting, what have you, to admire his own dialogue. Of Marty's most mortal crime of the series, in which his paternalism leads him to become what he beholds, the creator says, "I love Marty for doing this."
Four-minute HD "Inside the Episode" talking-head vignettes accompany all eight instalments, with Pizzolatto and Fukunaga sharing the explanatory duties. A lot of it discloses too much--not in terms of plot, but in terms of Pizzolatto's symbolic thinking. When he starts talking about the big tree where murder victim Dora Lange⁸ meets her fate as representing the human nervous and circulatory systems, it's like an undergrad's semiotics paper. "I don't view Cohle and Hart as antiheroes," he says on another segment. "I don't think there's any 'anti' about it." Heroism ain't what it used to be, I guess. The featurettes remind me Elizabeth Reaser had some scenes; this absence from my memory of any given work she appears in (e.g., anything with the prefix Twilight) appears to be her fate. There are two deleted scenes in HiDef, the first a six-minute expansion of Reverend Joel Theriot's otherworld-beseeching tent sermon in "The Locked Room." The expanded cut becomes more explicitly about Jesus--who's never mentioned in the more ambiguous finished episode--and ends with a mic drop. It adds up to a great audition reel for actor Shea Whigham. A second, at four minutes, looks like an attempt to burn off the show's aerial-photography budget set to music. Result: a T Bone Burnett video.
"Making 'True Detective'" (15 mins., HD) is the fairly typical quick-cut EPK assembled for promo purposes, shooting the actors on set and the filmmakers against greenscreens to look like they're on set. Reaser gets more screentime here than in the entire series. Stephens reveals many exterior shots required keeping an owl and hawk on hand to scare off rackety mockingbirds that would ruin audio on a take, because Harper Lee has taught us it's sin to kill them. Artist Joshua Walsh talks over the "devil's traps" he created to festoon the spooky crime scenes and everybody agrees not to bring up The Blair Witch Project. "Up Close with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson" (8 mins., HD) is a set of two-minute sit-downs chatting about key scenes in the Cohle-Hart partnership. The actor pals snuggle in close and charm predictably, though Harrelson's too big a man to gloat over how he's played a real Cormac McCarthy character in an actual movie movie. "A Conversation with Nic Pizzolatto and T Bone Burnett" (14 min., HD) puts the gentlemanly, well-dressed musician and the novelist-turned-filmmaker into facing easy chairs. The former queries the latter on his music choices; the latter brings up the Bechdel test to goad the former into defensiveness. I know whom I'd rather listen to for an evening.
Disc One of this package unlocks a set of streaming "instant previews" for four HBO original programs: "Veep", "Silicon Valley", "True Blood", and "Boardwalk Empire". These took a while to load on my otherwise reliable Samsung player and offered fairly basic playback quality with a handful of stutters and reloads. I made it through about fifteen minutes of the "Veep" episode on offer. The collection additionally offers a digital download in iTunes or UltraViolet format. I chose the former, and found within it roughly 10 minutes of promo content--series trailer, character bios, set tour--not included on the discs. There is no featurette on the credits sequence, carried out by "Game of Thrones" title designer Elastic, but I'd like to someone to answer for this and "True Blood"'s weakness for Stripper Ass. Is it something about Louisiana? Follow Jefferson Robbins on Twitter
1. Aside from the two lawmen querying Cohle and Hart in the "present-day" scenes--who are themselves observers and reactors to our Dynamic Duo--the speaking African-Americans are an office secretary, a senile grandma, a church minister (Clarke Peters, much missed since the end of "Treme"), and a large crew of hoods in the Texas housing project raid. The Louisiana Gulf region is roughly thirty percent black. return
2. Chambers was three times the writer Lovecraft was, but Carcosa has its origins a few years earlier, in a story by Ambrose Bierce. American weird fiction, like hip-hop, is often a collage of skits, name-checks, and dis tracks. return
3. For yet more contempo-Lovecraftian metaphysics (and rape), see Alan Moore's otherwise revolting graphic novel Neonomicon, portraying our universe as an abstracted hologram of H.P.'s fabled Plateau of Leng. return
5. Maybe this was a big break for Alexandra Daddario and Lili Simmons, but their in flagrante nude scenes go on far longer than it takes to establish a story point, or even to titillate. return
6. Something else "True Detective" has in common with Chambers, et al is a cast of deeply unreliable narrators. Cohle, Marty, and Maggie each lie to their questioners, sometimes in vivid detail, and Cohle's history of drug flashbacks alone makes his eyewitness testimony suspect. Likewise, we have no guarantee the video Cohle shows Marty to recruit him to his cause in 2012 originates where Cohle says it did...which means Cohle could be lying to Marty too. return
7. McCarthy's most memorable women characters are a mother who commits suicide rather than protect her baby from the wasteland and a trailer-park wife left home alone to wait for Anton Chigurh. return
8. ...as in Dorothea Lange, legendary portraitist of the rural downtrodden. Do you get it, DO YOU GET IT? return