The following is a review and discussion of True Detective Season 1. There are spoilers so please do not read beyond if you plan on watching Season 1. Otherwise, feel free to continue reading!
True Detective in Season One stars Matthew McConaughey (Rust Cohle) and Woody Harrelson (Marty Hart) as Louisiana State criminal investigation detectives for homicide. The season opens with Cohle and Hart investigating a new, prolific case of a woman was has been murdered and displayed in a field at a tree. She has a crown of horns on her head and stab wounds on her abdomen, placed kneeling toward the tree. Cohle has been brought on to the homicide team recently from Texas with mysteriously redacted and classified files on his history as an undercover drug operations agent.
The show has a unique feel. The opening theme is “Far From Any Road”, an alternative country song by The Handsome Family. Its played in the background of a visually striking show opening that mixes images of the characters and flashes of scenes from various episodes, alluding to the nature of what you are about to watch. Much of the music in the episodes is blues and gospel, mixed with ominous, slow tempo beats, adding to the mysterious, dark tones emanating throughout the show.
The viewer learns early that both main characters are far from perfect. Rust Cohle is an antisocial drug addict, frequently seen lighting cigarettes, who has a way of expressing himself with no regard to offending others. Cohle stirs up Marty with his unrelenting philosophical criticisms of nearly anyone and everything, specifically religion. Marty mentions to another pair of detectives that Rust Cohle would “pick a fight with the sky if he didn’t like its shade of blue”. Marty Hart is a more traditional man, friendly to the Louisiana way of life, yet a penchant for getting piss drunk, violent, and cheating on his wife. His relationship with his wife and kids is strained and neglectful, due to his job and his inability to communicate well, mentioning that he feels like “that coyote in the cartoons running off a cliff and if I don’t look down, I might be ok but… I think I’m all fucked up.”
The two characters rarely cooperate with each other conversationally, yet work quite well as a detective team, complementing each other to shore up individual weaknesses. Cohle’s incredible intelligence, ability to break down and read suspects, and an ability to get violent and intense on demand make him a near perfect, gritty detective with skills surely mastered from his undercover past. “Everybody wears their hunger and their haunt, you know? You just got to be honest about what can go on up here, a locked room.” Marty, who is also intelligent, is more a political player, the lone defender of Cohle’s antics and necessary for talking to people.
UNDESIREABLE CHARACTERS AS PROTAGANISTS
The show plays off an uncommon protagonist angle. Both main characters are somewhat unlikable. Marty is abusive of his authority, violent towards his family, he cheats, he’s temperamental, etc. Rust doesn’t really do any of those things. However, he does treat Marty poorly at times, expecting him to stay late and finish paperwork since he feels that he is more important to the team than Marty and does the better “leg work”. He also tells a suspect to kill herself after she admits to murdering her offspring, frequently being cruel to other cruel or insane people. They live lives we don’t want to emulate, yet you find yourself rooting for them to find the murderer(s) and deliver justice.
It demonstrates that people aren’t one dimensional.
I find Cohle to be the better man, seeing as how he doesn’t actually hit or abuse women, or kids, or anyone who doesn’t bring it upon themselves, something that can’t be said of Martin Hart. Though he self describes himself as a bad person. “The world needs bad men. We keep other bad men from the door” he says in a philosophical discussion with Marty.
You begin to realize that the show isn’t merely about finding the identity of the killers, but about the detectives finding their own identities. Their careers as detectives and policemen mandate that they neglect their personal lives and deal with harsh violence and disturbing experiences. They end up feeling separated from the same society and lives they are trying to help. In perhaps his most dark and nihilistic monologue, Rust Cohle says:
“This… This is what I’m talking about. This is what I mean when I’m talkin’ about time, and death, and futility. All right there are broader ideas at work, mainly what is owed between us as a society for our mutual illusions. Fourteen straight hours of staring at DB’s, these are the things ya think of. You ever done that? You look in their eyes, even in a picture, doesn’t matter if they’re dead or alive, you can still read ’em. You know what you see? They welcomed it… not at first, but… right there in the last instant. It’s an unmistakable relief. See, cause they were afraid, and now they saw for the very first time how easy it was to just… let go. Yeah they saw, in that last nanosecond, they saw… what they were. You, yourself, this whole big drama, it was never more than a jerry-rig of presumption and dumb will, and you could just let go. To finally know that you didn’t have to hold on so tight. To realize that all your life–you know, all your love, all your hate, all your memories, all your pain–it was all the same thing. It was all the same dream, a dream that you had inside a locked room, a dream about being a person.”
After all his time spent around death and looking at dead bodies, Cohle presumes that it’s all for nothing, encouraging the viewer to question what they would really think and feel if they knew they were going to die right now in the next few moments.
Granted, I don’t think that idea needs to be as dark as he portrays it, it is an interesting thought.
The most underrated and under-discussed elements of the show are how its filmed and how dry comedy cuts the mood from an otherwise gloomy and depressive show.
When investigating a prostitution safehouse in the rural outskirts, Cohle confronts the implied leader, herself also a prostitute:
“RUST: “What is this? Some kind of hillbilly bunny ranch?”
WOMAN: “Excuse me? You might want to talk to Sheriff Bilson before you start tossin accusations around”
RUST: “Nah, I’ve got nothing against hillbillies”
Cracks me up every time.
In another scene where the pair are questioning an inmate who previously roomed with a psychotic suspect, Marty sits next to him sympathetically and stares Rust down while commenting “Must be tough. Living with someone spouting insane shit in your ear all day long.”
This kind of subtle, crude humor is sprinkled throughout the show and elicits a wry smile from viewers willing to pay attention and appreciate it. Before Rust gets ready to visit the Iron Crusaders, he steals some cocaine from the evidence storage at police headquarters, replacing it with a bag of baking soda. He does a quick bump to make sure its legit then makes a funny face. As he leaves and closes the door, he says “They really should have a better system for this”, remarking on how easy it was to take a giant bag of coke with no one noticing.
Even in the most serious of circumstances there is dry humor. After hastily blowing Reggie LeDoux’s face off with his revolver, Rust tells Marty as they scramble to adjust the crime scene “Fuck him. Good to see you finally commit to something.” Best line ever. The show is dense with subtle lines that are hard to decipher or notice and upon rewatching, the viewer picks up much more of the show. It really had some great screenwriting and great delivery, particularly from McConaughey.
The filming was mostly directed by Executive Producer Cary Joji Fukunaga, who I think is a world class movie producer and was also involved in Sin Nombre and Beasts Of No Nation.
The show is shot in such a way that it pans back and forth between present and past. Frequently as Cohle and Marty are being interviewed, the scene cuts away to the past. In two specific instances, the film uses this to demonstrate the lies of the detectives while their voiceover tells the lies.
In one scene, while Marty is being interviewed, he goes on to talk about how family is important and keeps you steady and balanced. Meanwhile the scene shows him as he drunkenly drives up to his “other girlfriend’s” apartment and attacks a man she brought home from the bar.
In another scene, both Cohle and Hart describe their approach to Reggie LeDoux and Dewal’s home to Detective’s Papania and Gilbough. As they describe what happened (the lie about about being shot at with the AK-47) it shows what they actually did- sneaking up on the home and taking LeDoux out of the house with his hands over his head.
“Get the cuffs off him before the blood settles, we gotta make this look right” Cohle says to Marty after the other man is shredded by his own homemade Bouncing Betty.
The majority of the show is filmed in Louisiana, where the show is set, so the environments and locations are authentic to the story. Altogether, the range and class of the cinematography and film editing are very well done. The production quality in general is a crucial piece of what made the show so compelling.
FINAL RATING – A+
True Detective is certainly an adult show. It’s violent, dark, dirty, grungy, but also awkward, funny, contemplative, mysterious, philosophical. The range of moods and questions asked of the viewer command focus and awareness. That’s part of its excellence. It’s raw, real, and above all, makes sense. It’s a realistic enough show and explores so many themes- morality, the meaning of life, violence, consciousness, tragedy, turmoil, friendship, commitment. It’s not the type of show that anyone always feels like watching, but when in the right mood for crime dramas, this show stands out far above the others.