Serial Killings, Voodoo, And Cough Medicine Abuse: Your Happy Nice Time Recap Of True Detective
We are suckers for moody detective dramas that are about more than just the mystery of who is killing hookers and posing their corpses in quasi-religious tableaus. So we were near giddy for the premiere of HBO’s poorly named True Detective. (Really HBO? You couldn’t do better than what sounds like the title for a pulp magazine from the 1950s?) Woody Harrelson! Matthew McConaughey! And set in 1995, so there was a chance that a radio in some scene might be playing Soul Asylum in the background, maybe? Let’s get into it.
A good procedural is as much about atmosphere and the characters’ journeys as the actual mystery, shot as they are in washed-out light where grizzled men stare into the distance while expounding portentous theories about human nature colored by the dark abyss into which their jobs require them to stare day after psyche-damaging day, driving away their spouses and children and pets who are never enough of a bulwark against the nightmares and the grisliness of The Things They Have Seen.
After a couple of shots of a dark figure carrying a body out into the middle of nowhere and then a haunting image of a line of fire marching across a field, we’re introduced to Martin Hart (Harrelson) sitting before a video camera in the offices of the Louisiana State Police Criminal Investigative Division in 2012. Harrelson looks sour and impatient and a bit like a small-town real estate agent. “You don’t pick your parents and you don’t pick your partner,” he tells a questioner off-camera, and since we know he and McConaughey play partners on the show, right away we also know what we’re about to watch does not contain a happy ending for the partnership.
Cut to another interview room, another video camera, and here is Rust Cole (McConaughey), long-haired and bedraggled, looking like a parolee who works in a machine shop and rents a room at the YMCA, and can we just pause to offer kudos to whatever managers and agents have spent the last few years steering McConaughey away from his mid-career habit of starring in low-rent romantic comedies with Kate Hudson and Sarah Jessica Parker? The guy was born to play roles where he affects a thousand-yard-stare while tapping cigarette ashes into a mug that says BIG HUG MUG on it five seconds after someone tells him he’s not supposed to smoke in the office. “You assholes,” he growls. “You wanna hear this or not?” Oh yes, we want to hear it.
Cut back to 1995. Hart and Cole, partners for three months, are in a nondescript police sedan from the motor pool of every cop show ever, driving out to a sugar cane field to where someone has found a body, and you know it’s 1995 because both men are clean-shaven with full heads of hair. A young woman’s naked body kneels before a tree as if she is praying before an altar, her wrists bound, head topped by a crown of deer antlers. Strange little models made out of what look like twigs hang from the tree and sit on the ground nearby. The girl has been stabbed and tortured, and the local cops are obviously unnerved. Obligatory dialogue in which the veteran detectives tell the locals they have never seen anything like this. It’s creepy but not overdone. Heck, we’ve seen bloodier scenes on your average episode of Castle.
While all this is going on, we’re hearing Hart’s conversation with his questioners in 2012. Cole was known as “The Tax Man” because he took notes in big accounting ledgers. His files from Texas, where he used to work, were “classified, or redacted, or something.” Oooo, Cole has a mysterious past! We bet he’s haunted by it.
Hart sees Cole’s apartment, which is a bare space with a mattress on the floor and a bunch of books about serial killers and profiling, and we’re really having trouble seeing even clean-cut Matthew McConaughey as a book-smart detective who spends all his time reading books about killers. He just doesn’t have the gravitas for it. It’s as if Brad Pitt had played the Morgan Freeman role in Se7en. But he has theories he got from all his fancy book-learnin’.
Cole also has feels because it’s his daughter’s birthday, and he shows up drunk that night at Hart’s house for dinner with Hart’s family. Then we’re back in the nondescript police sedan (there will be a lot of this nonlinear jumping around, but it somehow works) where the two detectives discuss the Big Questions about human consciousness and evolution and religion and it’s all very fascinating in an advanced undergraduate philosophy seminar sort of way.
Also Woody Harrelson sounds a little mush-mouthed, as if he’s half-assing a reprise of his performance as post-stroke Larry Flynt.
In the police station in 1995, Hart briefs his captain or lieutenant or whatever while Cole broods at his desk, getting the evil eye from the other detectives. He’s a loner, Dottie, a rebel. Convinced the murder victim was a prostitute, he goes hunting for clues at a truck stop, downing a bottle of…Robitussin? Really? Okay, downing a bottle of Robitussin on the drive over. A minute ago he told his partner he doesn’t drink. Very confusing. He hits up a couple of prostitutes for possible clues as to the identity of the dead girl, and also for Quaaludes or some other barbiturate to help him sleep. What, the Robitussin won’t do it?
Hart’s wife, played by Michelle Monaghan, wakes up her husband, who has slept in yesterday’s clothes in an easy chair. She is the type of loyal cop wife who still looks insanely hot even after giving birth to two daughters and calls her lawman husband “Lone Ranger.” The house is an absolute wreck, strewn with toys and the general mess that comes with having small children, and Hart doesn’t hear his wife when she says she has missed him the last couple of days, so we know this marriage is not long for the world. We hope Michelle Monaghan read her contract carefully before signing it.
The dead girl has been identified as Dora Lange, who has been arrested in the past for solicitation. Cole manages to not say “I told you so” when smugly announcing this to his partner. The two men brief the other detectives in their squad and everyone hits the rundown streets of this dying Louisiana town to hunt for clues. Hart and Cole run across an old man who tells them about a little girl who went missing a few years prior. A pastor tells them about two cats someone disemboweled and nailed to the door of his church. He also sheds some light — maybe — on the models found with the dead girl in the field. “Old Auntie told us they were devil nets,” he says. “You put ’em around the bed to catch the devil before he gets too close.” Okay then.
So far we’ve checked all the boxes: religious iconography, voodoo iconography, animal torture, a long-ago and never-solved disappearance, edgy partners who don’t like each other much, trees with lots of moss. It’s a cliched pastiche of Southern gothic noir, but it’s deliberate enough and without very much intrusive non-diegetic music, which is a nice change from most shows that can’t resist an audio cue every fifteen seconds.
In 2012, Cole bullies his questioners into buying him beer before he’ll keep going on with the story. “It’s past noon and my day off and I always start drinking at noon on my day off and you fellas don’t get to interrupt that.” We like this guy! He is just like us! Still not clear on why he’s talking to these two cops, though.
Back to the dinner at Hart’s house, with Hart chastising Cole for showing up drunk. Hart pours coffee into his partner and they sit through an uncomfortable meal with the loyal wife and innocent daughters. Cole talks about his failed marriage and that his daughter died. Poor guy. Michelle Monaghan is totally sure she can save him. At least that’s what we decide a few minutes later, when in 2012 Hart tells his two questioners things went bad between he and Cole in 2002 and they haven’t spoken in ten years. And Hart isn’t wearing his wedding ring. We foresee some empty, unfulfilling sexytimes and much recrimination sometime in the next seven episodes.
Hart and Cole visit the aunt and uncle of the little girl who disappeared a few years before. The uncle is a mess, incapacitated by strokes, but he and his wife think the girl’s father took her somewhere when her no-account mom was too busy partying to take care of her. But then Cole, looking in a shed behind the house, finds one of the little models like they had found at the murder scene in the cane field.
The two detectives in 2012 show Cole pictures of a fresh murder. The body has been strung up and posed like an angel of some sort, an idea swiped right out of season one of Hannibal (full disclosure: this reviewer has a day job with NBC). “You were off the grid for eight years,” one detective tells Cole, who has apparently finished the six-pack the cops bought him and is now working on a flask of what we’re guessing is not Gatorade. “How can it be him when we caught him in ’95,” Cole says with a knowing air that tells us he knows whoever they caught seventeen years ago was the wrong guy.
“We figured you’d know,” one of the cops says.
Cole puts away his flask, leans back, puffs on his cigarette as some of that thousand-yard-stare drains from his eyes, replaced by something cagey and alive. “Then start asking the right fucking questions,” he snarls. And with that, we begin our weeklong wait for the next chapter.