LA Confidential could have been the title for True Detective, as L. A. Confidential, more James Ellroy’s novel than the Curtis Hanson film, serves as a good example of this kind of story. There’s a similar sweep of history and sense of place in transition, three mismatched detectives rather than two with a pivotal female character, and a long-term crime and a long-term investigation; there’s even the crucial detail of a killing that seems to settle it and that’s later revealed not to. Just as much as Ellroy, writer Nic Pizzolato uses this kind of story as a way in to exploring the particulars of how men behave and how a place changes, but he doesn’t have Ellroy’s love of the genre.
Pizzolato impresses me as someone who has a strong sense of place, a pretty good sense of character, but not much sense of genre. True Detective’s great weakness is its thoroughly conventional plotting. For all the effectiveness of the three time frames (the interrogations in 2012 cover events in 1995 and 2002), every larger beat in the story can be predicted; we know too much of how this story will go, right down to You Killed the Wrong Guy and the Third Act Overlooked Detail. In some cases, Pizzolato can spin it to his advantage (I am an eternal sucker for any scene where the voiceover and the on-screen action are two different things) but more often it kills the suspense, or the effectiveness of the reveal–it’s clear in the first episode that Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) is a suspect. There are ways around this that more experienced filmmakers can find, but Pizzolato doesn’t have the experience or interest for that. At the same time, the plotting feels incomplete.
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT
At the end, Rust releases the story and an insanely incriminating videotape (director Cary Joji Fukunaga wisely never lets us see more than a few seconds of it) to a dozen media outlets, and we never know what happens. (There really should be a ninth episode here.) The conventional plotting simultaneously constrains the story, and raises expectations that aren’t fulfilled; again, it’s the sort of thing Ellroy does a lot better, finishing out all his plots to the extent they can be finished.
You can get a sense of what True Detective misses by comparing it to another work that’s almost conventionally plotted, but not quite: No Country for Old Men. With both, the summation of the theme comes at (or near) the end, in a conversation, but No Country by then has taken a sharp turn away from the conventional plot–there’s no battle between the three major characters, no huge showdown. Because of that, that last conversation between Tommy Lee Jones’ and Barry Corbin’s characters has such an impact; we’ve seen that “this country has always been hard on people. It ain’t all on you.” That meditation hangs in retrospect over the whole world of the film; Cohle’s last line is utterly beautiful (more on this later), but it really can only be about him.
True Detective plays by some conventions and ignores others, and that can be good and bad. The focus on plot makes it an eight-hour movie, not a television series, and that feels like a loss in some places. These characters and the setting are so engaging that we want to spend more time with them. In particular, True Detective doesn’t give us the pleasure of an ensemble cast; there’s not a sense of the lives of other cops here. One of the ways Pizzolato shows history and change is simply to have Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Cohle’s interrogators in 2012 be black, but we don’t spend any time with them beyond that. (Well, they do set up the Yellow King’s reveal at the end of episode seven, which makes it clear that Pizzolato only sees them as beats in the plot, not people.) 2014’s other great miniseries, Fargo, had a much fuller, more defined cast of characters. Only the great character actor Paul Ben-Victor, playing the boss in 2002 in full YER OFF THE CASE! mode, stands out here–when you’re playing nothing but a cliché, you gotta have some fun with it, and Ben-Victor does. I would start a petition to have him appear in everything, except I’m pretty sure he already has.
Having said all that, we have to remember that True Detective has been pitched as an anthology series, something that Todd van der Werff claims will be the future of prestige television. In the context of other seasons, the standard plot of the first one might not be a problem at all; I can see that this season might be the first sounding of themes that will play in later seasons, or that we’ll see slight variations on this plot in other settings. There’s something to be said, also, for showing the repeated beats of investigations across time and place. It’s something that could work well as part of a larger whole; we’ll know when it’s all over.
The convention of the detective story pays great dividends with setting, though, and that’s where the cinematic (rather than television) nature is nothing but a good thing. An investigation requires the investigators to travel to a lot of diverse places, and interview diverse people, and Pizzolato and Fukunagagive a sense of such a complex place here, Louisiana on the edge of modernity, with its revival tents and raves, forests, clearings, abandoned military forts, trailers, shacks, cities, strip malls, and the ever-present industrial shapes of the oil industry. A repeated image is Cohle and Marty’s car driving through the bayou, with those shapes always in the background. That sense of the past never going way literally always shares the frame with the characters. When we see one of the girls from the brothel turn up seven years later in a T-Mobile store (oh real smart product placement there, morons), the jolt comes almost entirely from the setting. In another scene, Tess Harper appears with her hands wrecked from decades of industrial work; Fukunaga tells us so much with just a shot of her hands.
The little sculptures left behind by True Detective’s killer, the Yellow King, have a scary organic feel to them. They show up in every episode, and point to the way Pizzolato and Fukunaga have conceived this work visually. They’re a bit like The Blair Witch Project’s stick figures, but much more elaborate. When we come to the Yellow King’s lair in the last episode, we see the same kind of look all through it, with sticks and branches arranged everywhere over what looks like a Civil War-era fort. It’s something profoundly disturbing, first because it suggests two kinds of past, both a human past and an even older, primeval past; those branches look like they come from another planet, an earth that got stuck in the Carboniferous Era. It’s also disturbing because it suggests the mind that made it and the decades of effort that went into it; one element of plot where True Detective gets right is the necessity of a villain who can live up to, and beyond, what we’ve been imagining for seven episodes.
Another kind of landscape generates what will most likely be the show’s most famous sequence: an eight-minute tracking shot through an urban firefight. It’s a technical masterwork (it would have to be to work at all), but like all great sequences in film, that’s not what makes it great; it’s not like a George Lucas special effect, made to show us it could be made. It’s like the great tracking shots in GoodFellas or Touch of Evil, showing us something that couldn’t be shown any other way. Here, it’s the way the camera never lets go of Cohle, keeping him near the center of the frame while chaos keeps expanding all around (and usually behind) him; if Fukunaga cuts away, we will have a clearer sense of the action but less sense of Cohle’s experience of it. He’s already been loaded with drugs here and McConaughey plays him as trying to think and to control his panic at the same time, and that’s what makes this sequence so insanely tense. As a general rule, cutting away from action lessens the impact of the action; it’s why the Michael Bay approach to action generates boring movies. What this sequence reminds me of the most are Quentin Tarantino’s long (but multiple) tracking shots of Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs and Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction, both cases where we follow characters as they move from place to place. This kind of filmmaking is simple to describe, almost impossible to execute, and generates so much straightforward tension.
True Detective is at its best in the realm of character and performance, something it shares with a lot of contemporary television. A series, even a shorter series like this, allows actors, writers, and directors to explore and define characters with greater nuance and depth than any contemporary film; I just can’t think of any film performances in the last fifteen years that can compare with the work of James Gandolfini, Elisabeth Moss, Jon Hamm, Bryan Cranston, or the entire cast of The Shield. (I wouldn’t consider 24 in the first rank of contemporary television, but Keifer Sutherland gave the great action-hero performance of our time in it.) True Detective focuses on the three main characters (really two) to the exclusion of everyone else, and those characters and actors make the investment worth it.
The McConnaissance can be defined easily: Matthew McConaughey has developed a sense of tragedy, a sense of what can be lost. His earlier performances were marked by an almost biological ability to look like he didn’t give a shit about anything, which made attempts to place him in melodrama nearly literally laughable. (It was so unfair to place him against Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey in A Time to Kill.) It’s not that he’s grown up; he hasn’t lost his youth, but he brings something haunted to Rust Cohle here. One of the most effective aspects of the three time frames here is that McConaughey’s eyes are the same in all of them. The other characters age, but although Rust’s appearance changes the most radically, his gaze is still wary, frightened, even traumatized, one more way the past hangs over everything here. For Rust, everything he sees confirms what he already knew.
Much has been made of Cohle’s philosophy of pessimism, a lot of it by Pizzolato himself, but True Detective isn’t a philosophical argument; as I said, the story is too straightforward and conventional for that. Probably because I see story before all else, I’ve never been moved by complaints against a work for being philosophically naïve. What interests me, and where the philosophy works, is the definition of character; I need to believe the character believes it. (See also: Fight Club.) Like Dutch Shea, Jr., Cohle has failed to come through the grief over his daughter’s death; he’s stuck in a world where everything tends to disorder and entropy. That makes the detail of his ledger and his nickname of The Taxman even more powerful–he obsessively adds up details against the void. This works not because it’s a huge insight into the nature of the universe, but because it reveals who Cohle is. After the tracking shot, probably the other thing True Detective gets known for is the line “time is a flat circle,” but it’s important to remember that line doesn’t come from Cohle, it comes from one of the Yellow King’s subjects and gets stuck in his mind. (The line appears in a 1995 scene and Cohle repeats it in 2012.) It shows the way Cohle simply cannot move on; time is a flat circle for those who grieve.
Woody Harrelson doesn’t usually get appreciated for how well he can play smart characters, probably because of his breakthrough role on Cheers. His Marty is just as smart as Cohle but not as articulate. As a necessary contrast to Cohle, Marty does grow and change over the three time frames; he looks gradually more tired as Marty ages. (Great moment of checking his hairline in flashback.) Marty’s wisdom comes in single lines rather than monologues; in the first episode, he sets the tone for Cohle’s entrance by saying “past a certain age, a man without a family can be a bad thing.” Later, he sums up so much about his life by asking his interrogators “how many ex-wives you have?”
That line is a key to his character, and to a theme here, about the impossibility of reconciling this kind of manhood with a family. (Michael Mann made it a key theme of Heat, too, and I’ll be addressing that next week. For now, enjoy the coincidence that the first year of our story–1995–is the year of Heat’s release.) What makes Marty a compelling character is that he lives out a code, and that’s one of the ways you define drama. Another key line for Marty comes early on when he tries to explain why he cheats on his wife, saying that there’s a need to keep his family safe from his work. Shallow and self-serving? Sure, but drama doesn’t work because of what we think of the characters’ values, it works on how the characters live those values. We can see in 2012 how Marty has lost his family because of those beliefs, and how isolated he is now. There’s nothing heroic about this, no A Man Stands Alone, just a guy with a TV, frozen dinners, and Match.com for company. When Marty says “my true failure was inattention,” it’s so powerful, because in this story about the persistence of the past, Marty couldn’t journey with his family into the future; Marty wishes time could be a flat circle.
What makes Marty less than a full character, though, and makes True Detective less than a fully successful story, is that Pizzolato never integrates Marty’s domestic story into the main story; like Marty, he tries to separate them and that doesn’t work. What we get then is a static character study in the middle of the detective story’s momentum, and it can only feel like the main story has stalled out. Shawn Ryan in The Shield told a similar story about a marriage falling apart, but he was always careful to have the events of that story cross with the other stories he was telling; it’s one of the reasons Noel Murray described The Shield as “the dramatic TV series that understands the power of narrative momentum perhaps better than any other in the history of the medium.” The Sopranos and Mad Men can also do the kind of domestic drama that Pizzolato attempts here, but for the opposite reason: because neither of those shows make storytelling their first priority; they’re more static and mosaic-like. Again, I’m going to chalk this up to Pizzolato not understanding how genre works, or (oh God let it not be this) thinking he’s somehow transcended the genre. Trying to be two contradictory things in creating something usually means you fail at both.
To the extent the domestic plot works, it’s because of Michelle Monaghan, who, without any fanfare, has become one of the most interesting actresses around. In Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Gone Baby Gone, and this, she does what a great performer does: completely inhabit the roles and the universe of the film in such a way that you can’t see any of the other roles in each performance. (J. J. Abrams once said that the highest compliment he knew of for an actor was “unrecognizable.”) Also, sometimes a great performance isn’t about illuminating a powerful character, sometimes it’s what Monaghan does here: take an underwritten character and find the depth in it almost entirely on her own.
Pizzolato writes Monaghan’s Maggie as little more than a plot point; she’s there so Marty can cheat on her and she can revenge-fuck Cohle. Yet Monaghan finds shades of anger, desperation, and intelligence in her; with no help from the script, she plays a wife who absolutely has Marty’s number. (You really see this when Marty cheats the second time; there’s exactly zero surprise.) She’s very much like Diane Venora’s character in Heat, and I kept wishing we could be allowed to see the same level of insight. (Think of the great Fuck You line Mann gave Venora: “and now I have to demean myself with Ralph just to get closure.” That would work here too.) Monaghan’s performance in the 2012 scenes are the most moving; she plays them like Anne Hathaway in the last act of Brokeback Mountain, placing a wall around what happened and letting everyone know she will die before she lets anyone through that wall. (Nice touch from the makeup department: Maggie almost but not quite covers the lines on her face.) If Pizzolato had shifted more of the focus (and action) to her, this would have been so much better. Again, L. A. Confidential is a great point of comparison here, because in that novel, Ellroy really began to give his female characters more of a role and more agency, culminating in the complex gonzo brilliance of Blood’s a Rover; Pizzolato and Fukunaga should really consider adapting the Underworld U. S. A. trilogy as a series, or into this one.
True Detective ends conventionally but beautifully, and that makes up for a lot of flaws. As I said, Cohle’s dream at the end recalls Sheriff Bell’s dream at the end of No Country for Old Men, with Cohle having a vision of his dead daughter. It’s also like the coma sequences in the last season of The Sopranos and Buffy’s time in the afterlife in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with the sense that this is far more than a dream. You can feel the loss when Cohle wakes up, and it gives a bitter twist to Marty’s last description of him: “it occurs to me that you’re unkillable” (another way time is a flat circle with Cohle), because that means he’ll never see his daughter again. Cohle’s last line, and the last line of this season, though, spins that again, telling us “once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning,” and Fukunaga takes a moment to do something, again, incredibly old: look up at the stars. It’s hopeful, after so much pain, and it’s earned, suggesting not an eternal victory but an eternal struggle. Not a bad place from which to launch a second season.