The haunting and beautiful music of The Handsome Family’s song, “Far From Any Road,” serves as the theme song for True Detective, HBO’s much lauded TV series now available on Blu-ray. Coupled with the stunning imagery of the show’s title sequence, which features shots of flames, crosses, strippers and the tortured faces of the shows stars, Woody Harrelson, Matthew McConaughey and Michelle Monaghan, the mood of True Detective is established before a word is spoken by a single character. When they do begin speaking, though, you’re in for one of the most thought provoking and disturbing eight hours of your life.
Told through multiple flashbacks and police interviews in the present day, True Detective takes place over a twelve year span, beginning in 1995. Harrelson is Marty Hart, who worked as a detective in the Louisiana State CID. Balding and packing some extra weight, Marty has been called upon to recall his partnership with Detective Rust Cohle (McConaughey), a tightly wound investigator nicknamed the “Taxman” thanks to the leather bound ledgers he keeps to write exhaustive notes and his lack of social graces.
Hart and Cohle are an odd couple. Hart is married with two daughters and lives a seemingly normal life. Cohle is a loner who has suffered the death of a child and painful divorce. Before relocating to Louisiana, he spent years deep undercover in a Texas narcotics unit, which seriously messed with his head. The two men are assigned the ritualistic murder of a young woman, who was bound naked in a praying position, with antlers affixed to her head, and left in the middle of a field. This case will not only send the men reeling, it will bring them close to ruin in the years that follow.
When we meet Rust in the present day, we see just how much this case has destroyed his life. He’s a skeletal, long haired alcoholic who doesn’t give a shit about police rules of regulations. As the two interviewing detectives (Michael Potts and Tory Kittle) run through their questions, Rust pounds Lone Star tall boys, takes long drags from his flask, and chain smokes Camels, all in defiance of them. The striking change in appearance between the 1995 Rust and his present day incarnation deepens the mystery of the show, and keeps you wondering what happened to these men in those twelve years. In due time we learn what happened to both men, and what dark secrets about the swampy backwoods of Louisiana drove them apart.
While McConaughey received the lion’s share of attention for his stellar portrayal of the enigmatic Rust, Harrelson does exemplary work as Marty. It’s tough playing the straight man to an actor as charismatic as McConaughey, especially when Rust is handed so many of the show’s epic speeches. But Harrelson handles the role superbly. His dramatic work is often overlooked, but in recent years Harrelson has been wonderful in films such as The Messenger, Rampart and last year’s Out of the Furnace. True Detective ranks near the top of his best performances in his long career. Likewise, Monaghan has the difficult role of being the sole actress that appears throughout the show. She handles the part with strength and deep empathy for the character.
True Detective was created by Nic Pizzolatto, who wrote every episode. In a unique move for television, each episode of the first season had just one director, Cary Fukunaga. This unusual arrangement allowed for a singular vision of the show. With the creative minds behind True Detective operating on the same wavelength, this series feels more like a feature film than the first season of an anthology television series.
Pizzolatto has constructed a labyrinth take of human depravity. We witness humanity at its darkest in this contemporary noir. In Fukunaga, he found an imaginative and thrilling storyteller to be his partner. It would be worth watching the show just for the brilliance of episode 4, “Who Goes There.” In it, Fukunaga crafted a six-minute single take that is not only a technical feat, but equal parts suspenseful and full of dread. The follow-up episode, “The Secret Fate of All Life,” contains a shootout sequence that rivals anything I’ve seen in television or features. Finally, the season finale has a twisted climatic scene that requires repeated viewing. Immediately after that, McConaughey delivers a beautiful monologue that’s as good or better than all of his Academy Award winning performance in last year’s Dallas Buyer’s Club. It may earn him an Emmy.
HBO is going to have a tough time topping season one of True Detective. A lot will depend on the casting (rumors are swirling) and who they land to replace Fukunaga, who, like the cast, will not return for season 2. If the second season is only half as good as the first, it will still stand above most of the dramas on TV.
The True Detective Blu-ray features hours of bonus features, including commentary, a making of featurette and interviews with the two stars. What I found most insightful were the interviews by Pizzolatto and Fukunaga after each episode. The two men offered insight into the motivations and actions of the characters and help connect the dots on the dense plotlines.