mon 26/02/2024

True Detective, Sky Atlantic | reviews, news & interviews

True Detective, Sky Atlantic

True Detective, Sky Atlantic

Death on the bayou, with an added philosophical twist

Detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey, left) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) in pursuit of a ritualistic killer

You could boil down the content of this new HBO import to an info-bite that reads "two detectives hunt serial killer in Louisiana", but that wouldn't give you the faintest inkling of the pace, mood or texture of what's shaping up as a remarkable chunk of television. You may find it a little slow, and the Deep South accents sometimes cry out for explanatory surtitles, but you're liable to find it seeping into your consciousness like a troubling dream you can't shake off.

Unusually for an American show, this eight-part series has been authored solely by its creator, Nic Pizzolatto, and is helmed throughout by director Cary Fukunaga. Pizzolatto is a former English professor whose first novel, Galveston, appeared in 2010, and True Detective is unmistakeably a writer-first operation, notwithstanding some outstanding cinematography. The search for the killer, or - who knows? - killers, is the immediate preoccupation of the twin protagonists, detectives Rust Cohle and Martin Hart. Beyond that, though, Pizzolatto delights in leaving out all the usual police procedural stuff whenever possible, in favour of spinning a mesmerising skein of psychology, philosophy, memory and guilt, all lightly dusted with a miasma of creeping despair.

The creators get plenty of help from the Louisiana geography, with its marshy plains spattered with run-down shacks, dirt roads, truck stops, belching factories, dingy bars and rickety churches. Above all there's the pair of dynamite leads, Woody Harrelson as shoot-the-shit good-ole-boy Hart, and Matthew McConaughey as Cohle. The latter's astounding mid-career transformation (what they're calling his "McConnaissance") continues to gather pace before your eyes in McConaughey's portrayal of Cohle as a kind of clairvoyant mystic who treats homicide detection as a personal Grail quest.

In fact you get a double portion of McConaughey thanks to the show's split timeline. We ride with Hart and Cohle during their original 1995 investigation of a creepy ritualistic killing of a prostitute, then watch them being interviewed in 2012 by detectives investigating a new murder, reminiscent of the earlier case. While Harrelson's Hart is himself but older, the obsessively driven younger Cohle has aged into a tattered recluse, methodically drinking himself to death (pictured above).  

Nonetheless, Pizzolatto has found ways to smuggle in the occasional wry smile, often in scenes where Hart is trying to fathom what's going on in Cohle's head as they're driving to their next appointment. Cohle, a Schopenhauer among crime-fighters, is given to soliloquies about the worthlessness of mankind or the dismalness of the bayou landscape ("It's all one ghetto, man - a giant gutter in outer space"). He adds: "In philosophical terms I'm what's called a pessimist. It means I'm bad at parties."

"You ain't great outside of parties either," Hart retorts.

Sceptical colleagues have nicknamed Cohle "The Taxman", for his habit of carrying around a large ledger in which he writes copious case notes, and he sees persistence and accretion of detail as the keys to cracking a case which the police brass are characterising as having "an anti-Christian connotation". The atheistic Cohle, by contrast, is not duped by the killer's fondness for ghoulish Blair Witch-style symbolism, and has deduced that he's a "meta-psychotic".

But of course it's the actions and choices, past and present, of the detectives that are being investigated as much as the crime itself. Cohle has been irreparably seared by the death of his young daughter and subsequent divorce, while we can sense that Hart's ostensibly model family (two photogenic kids and wife Maggie, played by Michelle Monaghan, pictured above) is a fragile structure being battered by fierce Dixie storms. A happy ending? I doubt it.

Cohle, a Schopenhauer among crime-fighters, is given to soliloquies about the worthlessness of mankind


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters