Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey star side by side as Martin Hart and Rust Cohle, two very different Louisiana homicide detectives, in Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective. The lives of these two cantankerous cops start to intertwine over the course of a 17-year long hunt for a serial killer who harbours a chilling proclivity for the occult.
As that brief synopsis might suggest, there’s a surprising amount of cliché littered through this programme. The central arc charting two detectives with heavily clashing personalities banding together to solve a crime is tawdry and tiresome before the opening credits have even rolled. The repeated biblical references laced into the killer’s crimes come off as equally hackneyed, as do the backdrops of alcoholism and infidelity that saturate the two detectives’ lives.
True Detective even throws in an ill-tempered police chief for Hart and Cohle to rub up the wrong way for good measure, just in case we weren’t seated quite snugly enough in our comfort zone. If these tropes were inverted or upended in some way, we’d have an interesting programme on our hands. However, for the most part this isn’t the case, leaving True Detective to increasingly feel like a drama-centric Lethal Weapon movie with the slapstick humour excised.
This is a real shame because there’s so much I wanted to love about True Detective, but its strengths repeatedly came unstuck in the face of its flaws. The dialogue is delightfully sharp and is delivered with a marvellous flair for detail by McConaughey and Harrelson. The plot (at least initially) unfolds at a genuinely electrifying pace, cutting back and forth in time between present day and the investigation that took place in the 1990s; allowing for a number of interesting twists and turns in the process. True Detective also looks fantastic. From the cinematography to the set design, each frame is imbued with a murky Roger Deakins-esque beauty that’s the perfect accompaniment to the grim subject matter.
The crime thriller has historically been a very “male” genre about “men” dealing with very “masculine” things, which often results in female characters falling somewhat by the wayside in the light of this gender weighting. True Detective falls into this trap dick first. It’s actually shocking how thinly the female characters are painted. Either borne out as jilted wives, promiscuous teenagers, deadbeat strippers or murder victims; the repeated emphasis is on women relying on men or being adversely affected by them. None have anything to say for or about themselves, which further detracts from the programme’s appeal, as it’s actually quite sexist.
It’s often said that a thriller is only as good as its killer (read ‘often’ as: I said it once). True Detective’s mysterious killer is unearthed and imagined primarily through the inflections of detail found in his crimes. Satanic rituals, antlered crowns, tortured women, missing children, LSD and much more build up an image of a truly terrifying individual. Unfortunately the anticipation for this character far outweighs his realisation. The last couple of episodes feel horribly rushed, denying a satisfying conclusion to the much more satisfyingly drawn out opening. This eight episode programme is unquestionably at its best between the third and fifth. Unfortunately it’s a crescendo that arrives too soon, de-stabilising the plot’s foundations and rendering its finale a damp squib by contrast.
Perhaps, somewhat ironically, True Detective’s biggest drawbacks turn around to actually be its merits. What starts out as an innovative, refreshing and chilling thriller begins to collapse under the pressure of cliché, sexism and falsely placed expectation. Its failings would seem far less problematic without the hints of brilliance exhibited by True Detective’s performances, visuals and narrative structure. What ultimately drags True Detective down into the bayou alongside its victims, is the jarring contrast between the exhilarating and the mundane.
True Detective is out on DVD and Blu Ray on Monday 9th June, 2014.