With its seedy characters, decadent setting and forlorn tone, True Detective season 1 bears all the marks of a neo-noir, Southern Gothic crime drama. But in the forgotten backwaters of rural Louisiana, darker forces are at play. The show follows detectives Rustin Cohle and Marty Hart, played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, as they are called to investigate the ritualistic murder of a prostitute named Dora Lange. She is discovered knelt against a tree, with a strange symbol tattooed on her back and a crown of thorns and deer antlers on her head. The investigation takes place before a grey-washed backdrop of marshland, adding a sense of atmospheric dread to the depravity. Over eight episodes, the viewer jumps back and forth between three timelines, one documenting the beginning of the case, one covering its resurgence in 2002, and the ‘present’ timeline, when the two detectives are interviewed over their earlier involvement in the case.
Rust and Marty are not naturally suited to their partnership. Rust is a pessimistic recluse, with a general disdain for humanity. He has a tendency to indulge in morbid diatribes to the general effect that people should refrain from reproducing. When Marty queries “So… what’s the point of getting’ outta bed in the morning?”, Rust characteristically responds “I tell myself I bear witness. But the real answer is that it’s obviously my programming. And I lack the constitution for suicide.” Conversely, Marty’s self-narrative is that he’s a family man; a people person. He sees the essential good in the world, treating Rust’s gloomy nature as the product of his past. McConaughey and Harrelson embody their characters with protean ease. Their on-screen chemistry is wholly believable, and it is unsurprising to discover that they have a real-life friendship.
Writer, Nic Pizzolatto, is able to capture the entrenched attitudes of the two detectives, while still managing to account for their changing situations over the course of the seventeen years. Rust and Marty are plagued with cognitive dissonance, each maintaining his own warped set of principles, but failing to live accordingly. Marty is a huge proponent of family values, but his libido gets in the way of his ethics. Rust sees no value in humanity and the mundanities of life, but he treats his job, and the protection of innocence, as paramount. It is rare to find such complex psychological portrayals on screen and though admittedly, only the two main characters receive significant exposition, they are written and acted to perfection. Pizzolatto masterfully explores themes of identity, masculinity, dependency and loss without losing sight of the case at hand.
True Detective is a visual spectacle with its bleak cinematography, careful use of light and shadow, and lingering shots of the expansive Louisiana landscape. I am told it was shot on 35mm film, so if that gets you going, then all the better. What really makes True Detective so gratifying to watch is its attention to detail. Seek for hidden layers and ye shall find. The show is a must-watch for fans of cosmic horror, with its network of references to Robert W. Chambers’ fabled play The King in Yellow, later incorporated into H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. There is a sense of the unknown lurking beneath the investigation, as recurring phrases and arcane symbols begin to weave a web of connections.
True Detective seamlessly blends a variety of disparate influences, from Louisiana voodoo to the philosophy of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. With a release date in January 2014, it was a pleasure to find this gem in the depths of my quarantine boredom. Rustin Cohle provides a masterclass on how to wallow in self-isolation, so if you’re wanting for tips, or just shows you can watch from start to finish, look no further.
Image: VOA News via Wikipedia