True Detective from HBO stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson
New existential crime drama is TV heaven with a story from hell
HBO are back on form with a new existential crime drama. Brian Donaldson watches True Detective in awe as two Hollywood stars create TV heaven with a story from hell
On paper, the pitching of True Detective might not have set many pulses racing: two mismatched cops investigate a possible ritualistic serial killer in 1995, with both men having a list of flaws longer than the longest arm of the law. But, like sporting outcomes, landmark dramas are not made solely on paper. Up on the screen, True Detective fleshes out its bare bones with an almost extra-terrestrial magic as Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson dig out the performances of their already illustrious careers as a pair of Louisiana cops.
McConaughey is Rust Cohle, a morosely deep thinker with an eye for weakness and a tragic past that shadows his every move, while Harrelson plays Martin Hart, a straight-talking investigator whose working and family life are at the mercy of his own tendencies (violent) and predilections (sexual). They get to speak lines which most actors would die for in this HBO show which harks back to the cable channel’s early 2000s glory run of hits, including The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under and The Wire.
But it’s not just the stirring writing from crime novelist Nic Pizzolatto or the leads’ acting that gives this eight-part drama its wondrous power: the structure and visual telling are also electrifying. Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (whose previous credits are headed by 2011’s dark adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre), there are constant delights for the eyes and some brutally searing imagery that will stay imprinted on the mind for much longer than is healthy.
Perhaps most triumphant of all is the way the story switches between its two time frames. True Detective is being told in the here and now, as Cohle and Hart reflect back to 1995 while being separately questioned by two officers investigating a new series of murders. These fresh slayings have hints of the old case, but this can surely only be an instance of a copycat killer given that Cohle and Hart put the right person away in 1995? Surely … ?
Running side by side with the story of the original case is the relationship between Cohle and Hart and how an already fractious working partnership finally broke down, the pair not having exchanged a word since. ‘A lot of what’s fun and entertaining about this show is that, when you cut to 17 years later, he and I as characters are both wondering what happened in the interim to these two men,’ says McConaughey in a recent interview with collider.com. ‘Then, you’re going to slowly find out what happened. You’re going to find out if what I’m telling is the truth. Where are our stories the same? Where do they veer from what really happened? What happened in that 17 years and how we’re connected is really the fun of the eight episodes.’
There is also plenty of fun to be had on rewatching those eight episodes with tiny details being revealed on closer inspection. But don’t get too attached to the Woody / Matthew chemistry, as the proposed second series will start from scratch with a completely new case and a different set of actors and characters. It’s merely another innovation in a show that delivers a further piece of evidence in the argument that television continues to out-run cinema when it comes to putting epoch-shaping art on our screens.
True Detective starts on Sky Atlantic, Sat 22 Feb, 9pm.