Review: HBO's excellent new drama 'True Detective' with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson
HBO’s new hour-long drama True Detective hews closely to the themes of many TV dramas on the air today: serial killers (The Following, Hannibal), tortured men (just about anything on AMC), occult symbolism (American Horror Story). It’s dark and heavy, a Serious Show about serious things.
But, because this is HBO, it’s an exquisite version of that, with two compelling reasons to watch: Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.
From the expert cinematography (both beautiful and bleak) and direction to some stellar acting and a smart script, the pilot, written by novelist Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga would indeed stand out as one of the best in recent years with or without the casting of two movie stars. But their presence gives the entire thing a heightened feeling that’s hard to turn away from.
True Detective follows their characters, Martin Hart (Harrelson) and Rustin Cohle (McConaughey), two former Louisiana State criminal investigation division partners in two distinct timelines: 2012, when they’re giving separate statements to a pair of investigators about the murder of a prostitute 17 years earlier; and 1995, when they’re introduced to and begin investigating the murder. (They’re called to the crime scene of the dead prostitute, Dora Lange, and find her kneeling face-down in a field with antlers on her head like a crown.)
The show moves fluidly between the two timelines, which keeps both from getting boring. The 1995 timeline, initially more appealing, takes over most of the first episode. But the 2012 timeline is fascinating on its own, if more of a slow boil. The questioning of the pair by the investigators is presumably about the Lange murder, but there are lots of questions about their partnership and personal details. We learn the two worked together for seven years before something happened to tear them apart in 2002; they haven’t spoken since. Did they do something worth investigating? The real mystery is what happened to Cohle in the 17 years since the Dora Lange investigation. In those 2012 scenes, Harrelson’s character Hart is bigger, balder and confident. Cohle, on the other hand, is haggard. On his days off, he starts drinking at noon. McConaughey looks about 30 years older, with gray, stringy hair pulled back into a ponytail and crinkly bags under his weary eyes. Has he ever looked this bad onscreen before?
In 1995, Cohle also has a profound sadness — and weirdness — about him, seemingly brought on by the death of his daughter and, one might guess, seeing too many horrible things on the job that remind him of her. He’s clearly the more enigmatic and intelligent one . Harrelson’s Hart is a family man, with two daughters and a wife, played by Michelle Monaghan. (She’s really quite good in her few scenes, though she looks about 15 years too young for him and has little to do besides try to figure her husband out. If there’s thing this show could do better, it’s giving her — and really, any female character who isn’t a hooker — more to do.) Hart describes himself as a “regular type dude,” and seems to believe it, though there’s some indication in the first episode that he might not be entirely faithful to his wife (he seems far too eager to go over some files with an attractive woman who shows up at work.)
For the most part, the overused serial killer trope works here because the show doesn’t really seem to care who the serial killer is, at least not at this point. It moves along that investigation plot fairly well in the first hour, but the most compelling parts of the pilot are those that delve into Hart/Cohle as people.
It helps that those people are played by Harrelson and McConaughey, movie actors (well, for the most part) who have both reinvented themselves in recent years with more serious characters. McConaughey especially has completely revamped his image the past two years, from 2011’s Lincoln Lawyer to Magic Mike and the recent Dallas Buyers Club, for which he just won a Golden Globe last night. It feels like all of that work, shedding his rom-com skin and coming into his own as a serious performer, has prepared him for his role on True Detective. He is absolutely marvelous here. First of all, his ability to portray a deep intelligence within Cohle is remarkable, given that he’s rarely been asked to do that onscreen before. He knows how to play into his smaller frame — still lean from the 40 pounds he lost for Dallas Buyers Club — just right, giving him a wily edge in 1995 and a gaunt, sunken appearance in 2012. In the latter timeline, he lets his slinky Southern drawl sink down into a low, gravelly timbre. He’s a haunted man in both times.
The script by Pizzolatto can be a little overwrought, but benefits from line readings by McConaughey and Harrelson that make the words sound more natural than they have any right to. Cohle in particular says some pretty ridiculous stuff: “I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution;” “We are things that labor under the allusion of having a self;” “This place is like somebody’s memory of a town, and that memory is fading.” It all works toward establishing Cohle as an intellectual kook, but it’d be problematic in the wrong hands.
There are other characters on the show, though it’s hard to take your eyes off McConaughey and Harrelson. Clarke Peters in particular is promising as a town pastor. Much like his character on HBO’s The Wire, everything out of his mouth seems worth listening to. Hart and Cohle’s colleagues could use some fleshing out. True Detective’s New Orleans setting (the show is also shot in and around the city) lends the show an apocalyptic feel.
True Detective airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.