After “True Detective,” all the other TV cops hunting serial killers are going to look like copycats.
It’s not that HBO’s latest terrific drama re-imagines anything. Count the tropes: Detectives Martin Hart and Rustin Cohle are newly partnered (of course) when they stumble on a bizarre (check) case with political implications (yep) that the brass wants solved fast (naturally).
It’s that the taut script and spot-on dialogue takes us on a ’90s noir roller coaster ride of Shakespearean tragedy with fearless literary aspirations, delivered by two actors at the top of their game.
Rust (Matthew McConaughey) sticks out among his fellow Louisiana lawmen right away. At the eerie crime scene, when he declares the staged corpse is a serial murderer’s “paraphilic love map,” he gets a grunt and a “how’s that?”
But Marty (Woody Harrelson) comes around when the evidence comes back, and “True Detective” twists its mismatched-buddies narrative into a dark labyrinth whodunit that spans 17 years.
A similar case pops up in 2012, so Marty and Rust are called in for videotaped interviews to recall the whole investigation, whose files fell victim to Hurricane Rita. Their 2012 versions of the story frame the majority of the scenes, set in 1995. The killer they’re chasing is faceless through the first half of the series, but the grim reality of the underbelly of southeast Louisiana is unsettling enough. Marty and Rust don’t get along at first, but that’s because their dark sides made friends immediately.
McConaughey, who could get his first Oscar nod next week for “Dallas Buyers Club,” should rise to the top of every Emmy list. Rust is a magnetic yet terrifying good guy, Dirty Harry without the handsome leer. “Of course I’m dangerous,” he laconically lectures a skittish prostitute after buying downers from her. “I’m police. I can do terrible things to people with impunity.” That’s what passes for a comforting little speech from Rust.
He isn’t kidding, either, but despite some wrist-breaking in the line of duty, he’s as moral a human being as he can force himself to be.
Marty, not so much. He fancies himself a straight-shooter cowboy type and is enraged by Rust’s cerebral nihilism. But he can’t resist drawing him closer. “He seemed a bit raw-boned to me, edgy,” Marty tells his 2012 interviewers. “It took me three months to get him over to dinner.”
Marty can’t stand that he goes home to a beautiful wife and daughters, while Rust lives with a mattress on the floor, a coffee maker and a pile of profiling manuals. Rust shrugs.
“Given how long it’s taken me to reconcile my nature, I can’t figure I’d forgo it on your account, Marty,” he says.
What ties the men together is their obsessive need to solve their case amid the rumors of ritual satanic abuse still swirling around the South. When the governor’s task force on “anti-Christian crimes” takes note of the “Blair Witch”-esque symbols left at the crime scene, Marty and Rust close ranks and start taking shocking risks. They’re still keeping some secrets from their 2012 questioners about those days in 1995, when Marty’s marriage crumbled.
“It’s like I’m that coyote in the cartoons,” he tells his wife, Maggie (Michelle Monaghan). “I’m running off a cliff and if I don’t look down, I might be fine, but ” Their personal drama spills into work, and by the time Rust is carrying Marty’s pleading apology messages to Maggie, it’s obvious that first dinner with the family was a mistake. The partners’ raw confessions — about women, death and religion — keep them angrily tied to each other.
For a show about serial murder, “True Detective” doesn’t bank on gore. The first four hours show only one dead body, aside from a few glances at crime scene photos. It’s a dark, spare vision that metes out its moments of violence sparingly. Even more disturbing is watching Rust squirm in the grips of his past, which includes four years spent undercover with the scum of the earth and the death of his daughter. Heavy drug use, three bullets to the side and a stay in the psych ward mean he’s still seeing things, though he insists he always knew when he was hallucinating. “Back then, the visions — most of the time I was convinced I’d lost it,” the Rust of 2012 admits. “There were other times, I thought I was mainlining the secret truth of the universe.”
About the series
“True Detective” was created by award-winning crime novelist Nic Pizzolatto. Pizzolatto wrote every episode, and the whole season was directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, best known for his energetic, emotional 2011 version of “Jane Eyre.” The idea is to solve the mystery within an eight-hour serial narrative, with subsequent seasons repeating the format with new characters.
A ‘True Detective’ playlist
With tunes hand-picked by Oscar-winning producer T Bone Burnett, “True Detective’s” soundtrack is varied, haunting and emotive. This is a sampling of songs from the show’s first four hours:
• Bo Diddley, “Bring It to Jerome”
• Captain Beefheart, “Clear Spot”
• Handsome Family, “Far From Any Road”
• The Staple Singers, “Stand By Me (When the Storms of Life Are Raging)”
• 13th Floor Elevators, “The Kingdom of Heaven (Is Within You)”
• Black Angels, “Young Men Dead”
• Boogie Down Productions, “Illegal Business”
• Lucinda Williams, “Are You Alright?”
• The Melvins, “A History of Bad Men”
• Grinderman, “Honey Bee (Let’s Fly to Mars”)