Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Time is a Flat Circle or: Haven't I Seen True Detective Before?

Monday, March 10, 2014

Time is a Flat Circle or: Haven't I Seen True Detective Before?

by Tony Dayoub

When True Detective promos started popping up on HBO months ahead of its debut, it was difficult to figure what it was all going to be about. About all one could dig up was that it was an 8-episode series, shot in Louisiana (employing a few of the actors of HBO's just-cancelled Treme), starring two well-established stars, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson—neither of whom were on the usual descending trajectory movie stars travel when they decide to move to television—with a title that evoked the pulpy aesthetic of the mystery magazine that ran for decades.

Looking back from the other side of those 8 weeks, it's hard to say whether we know much more than that now. The fog of complicated Lovecraftian theories revolving around Carcosa, the Yellow King, etc., wasn't necessarily dispelled by last night's finale, much to the chagrin of some of the series' most ardent and perhaps myopic fans, who seemed so tuned up by the layers of unanswered questions and literary references, it's hard to figure out, even for them I believe, whether they actually enjoyed the series in its entirety. Were HBO suddenly to produce a documentary about the fan theories, akin to The Shining Rosetta stone Room 237, is there any True Detective fan who wouldn't tune in just to double-check their own take on the show?

As much as I'd have loved to weigh in on each episode over the course of its original run, it soon became apparent that would be foolish for, if anything, True Detective is a serial crime story best experienced as a journey. At the outset, it seemed that the voyage would take you towards a resolution of the murder mystery that True Detective only seems to be about. But in reviewing the past few weeks, I can't necessarily say that I'm astonished at how much of the details surrounding the killings resemble that of other television shows in this arena.

The haunting, dark underbelly of the swampy environs recall that of the town in David Lynch's Twin Peaks—not the folksy hamlet where Laura Palmer was murdered, but the scummy trailer-home burg of Deer Meadow where Teresa Banks was found dead in the prologue of the misunderstood Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. The antlers that form a crown on the corpse of Dora Lange are reminiscent of a similarly staged serial killing in NBC's Hannibal (the other best show on TV). A tangential visit by Detective Rust Cohle (McConaughey) to a biker club he ran with when he worked undercover explodes into a drug-fueled orgy of violence with an opposing inner city gang—memorable because of a stunning 6-minute long, single-take sequence—that feels like it'd have a better home in Sons of Anarchy.

To put it bluntly, True Detective feels familiar. Writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Jane Eyre, Sin Nombre) quote as liberally from the form they're working in, television, as they do from Robert W. Chambers The King in Yellow. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Those who object to just how many story threads were left dangling may have been approaching the admittedly cinematic show from the plot-oriented world of film. But those of us who grew up watching TV shows back in the day when they were routinely cancelled without a finale episode to provide any kind of closure know that the greatest reward derived from serialized drama is the opportunity to see characters develop over the span of a greater number of hours than a film usually provides. Rust Cohle and his partner Marty Hart (Harrelson) certainly evolve as True Detective unfolds.

If you expected Rust and Marty's interplay to follow the usual longtime-partner or the new-and-old-partners-iron-out-the-kinks-before-becoming-fast-friends model, True Detective's biggest surprise lay here. Harrelson and McConaughey had gotten along well onscreen before, but the cerebral, misanthropic Rust instantly rubs the hard-working-and-even-harder-playing Marty wrong right from the moment they meet. I struggle to remember any TV cop partners ever sustaining an active disgust for each other for anywhere near the amount of time that Rust and Marty do in True Detective. For Marty, an average Joe and team player, Rust represents the kind of antisocial element he believes cops work to keep at bay. For the buttoned up Rust, who's marriage was ruined by the untimely death of his young daughter, Marty was a scumbag philanderer who didn't value the very thing Rust felt he could never retrieve, a family life. A functional respect develops between the two men, however, mostly out of the fact that they share so many grim, unspeakable experiences over the decades covered by True Detective. Ultimately, a woman comes between them, taking a wrecking ball to whatever minimal personal relationship the men had managed to form, but the incident isn't sufficient to destroy their mutual professional respect.

In this way, True Detective ends up reminding me of Lonesome Dove, a western TV miniseries that also focuses on a pair of Texans in dire circumstances. Larry McMurtry's source novel and the show itself anticipate the dark westerns written by Cormac McCarthy where the dusty, barren plains are home to indescribable savagery facing ill-prepared settlers. Like Rust and Marty, Lonesome Dove's cattle company partners have a long, complicated history. Captain Woodrow F. Call (Tommy Lee Jones) is a taciturn man who looks down on his fellow former Texas Ranger, the genial Captain Augustus "Gus" McRae (Robert Duvall) for his womanizing, while Gus has never forgiven Woodrow for abandoning a prostitute who fell for him and bore his child. The two must work together to finally capture a brutal, half-Indian that has eluded them for decades, now on a killing spree with Gus's paramour as his hostage.

Perhaps it is finding more similarities between True Detective and a western, instead of a police procedural, that serves to explain why so little attention is paid to the females that populate Rust and Marty's world, an accusation currently making the rounds in other discussions about the show. This is a journey into Rust and Marty's souls more than it is an inquest into the killings they're investigating. The rurality of True Detective and the kind of backwoods macho codes that still prevail in Rust and Marty's anti-urban setting are more in line with the traditional archetypes found in western lore than in the urban sprawl of the detective story. Time really is a flat circle the way Rust describes. It just isn't spinning on the same plane one would assume it is.


Ed Howard said...

Nice summation, Tony, of a show that seems to have really hit a lot of nerves, for both good and bad. You're right that it's very tied in to a particular lineage of influences, both from TV and film, and that it's way more concerned with the characters of the two detectives (and perhaps, the atmosphere and locales surrounding them) than with the mystery they're investigating. Pizzolatto has said as much.

This is mostly to the show's benefit, and as evidence I'd point to the fact that in the second half, when long stretches of the show, by necessity of its structure, are dedicated to plot advancement, the show definitely suffers. The first five episodes are at such a consistently high level, and then the final three settle down a bit, becoming a bit more focused and conventional, tidying up bits of plot and exposing "the killer" before offering up a more contemplative, philosophical epilogue. It remains a good show, even a great one, but parts of its final act seem kind of prosaic in comparison to the moody, languid meanderings of the first 3 episodes, the heart-pounding frenzy of ep. 4, or the interesting clashes between words and reality in the fifth episode's confrontation with Ledoux.

And yes, the woman issue has been very well-covered elsewhere but I think it's a valid criticism of the show; it's something of a failure that, in light of the show's theme of women suffering in a male-dominated world, more was not done to undermine the male viewpoint on those women as victims or whores.

Tony Dayoub said...

So glad to hear from you again, Ed. I hope things are well.

It's curious you frame your criticism of the show around mood/atmosphere vs. plot/story. I hadn't broken it down that way, but essentially, you're correct. The pivot point seems to be the peak moment of the season, that masterful 6-minute single-take shot midway through the run. I'd argue that is when it shifts from the "languid meanderings" to the "prosaic," to use your terms.

In that way, it is inferior to TWIN PEAKS, a show that kept coming to mind because of TD's Lynchian creepiness. Yes, from a certain vantage point, PEAKS sort of went downhill after the Laura Palmer mystery was wrapped up. But I and others have always found PEAKS' late second season rewarding beacause it really digs deeper into the lore about the town, Cooper's past, Josie's history, etc. defying the pull of the weaker Windom Earle plotline which ostensibly drove that part of the show.

In other words, PEAKS remained obstinately character-driven despite this being the very reason for its eventual cancellation.