This True Detective review contains spoilers.
True Detective Season 1 Episode 3
“The Locked Room” episode of HBO’s True Detective opens on an examination of some artwork. A painting on the wall of an abandoned and burnt out church. Somebody thought enough of the Lange murder to commit it to an enduring canvass. That takes commitment. Someone suffered for that art. Rust Cohle and Martin Hart, the detectives on the case played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, wants to make the artist suffer for putting the model through the pains of his creation. The church that was abandoned, it is still giving lessons. The preacher that brought his fairy tales to the masses has since moved on.
At the very first sight of that pompadour and those pointy sideburns, I jumped out of my chair. I ran to the screen. I knew that face. There was no close-up but that had to be Nucky’s brother Eli Thompson from Boardwalk Empire. I’d just seen Shea Wigham in Silver Linings Playbook and have been noticing him in a lot of things since he’s become the ex-sheriff of Atlantic City. He usually downplays straight into his vest, but here he is giving out that old time religion. The preacher’s got a shaky hand, but he believes, just enough to fool people for the common good. But “If the common good’s gotta make up fairy tales, then it’s not good for anybody.”
It certainly didn’t do any good for the dead girl, Dora Lange. The last time she was seen, she was with a tall man with shiny skin beneath his chin, like a burn victim. The preacher tells Cohle why a slow-witted worker he suspects couldn’t have done it. Marty thinks the murder could be “some kind of retard job, pays for it, gets ashamed, overreact and tries to redeem the act.” Cohle thinks that’s good, it’s a sound theory. But it was the wrong guy. The symbology, there’s a culture to it. The murderer wanted the cops to find it. He was showing off. The cane fields were a stage. Dora Lange wasn’t his first victim, Cohle is sure of it. Of course it might be his myopia, but he thinks he sees a connection to another missing girl, Marie Fontaneau.
Marty’s got his own kind of myopia. He’s got the shortsightedness of a jealous man who is happens to be cheating. This means he’s got two women to be jealous of, his wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) and his mistress, Lisa Tragnetti (Alexandra Daddario). He keeps his mistress from moving on and blames his wife for keeping him in place. But he’ll be damned if anyone else is going to get any trim on his lawn. I mean he’s got other things distracting him, his daughter is drawing dirty pictures at school and he noticed that she’s been arranging her dolls in sexual positions. Sex is messing with Marty all over the place. On the job. At home. At hoe downs. He’s accountable and sometimes he takes his accountability too far. That’s kind of futile and very dangerous. He’s like that coyote in the roadrunner cartoons. He’s off the cliff. He might be okay if he keeps running, but he’s all fucked up.
Woody Harrelson doesn’t keep the rage bottled up, it bubbles beneath the surface all the time when it’s not being let out full steam. Matthew McConaughey is all bottle. He’s in the bottle and his rage is turned inward, sharpened and comes out like a laser beam. He’s become a bad man. He’s comfortable with that.
Major Ken Quesada (Kevin Dunn) does not like the way this bad man is upsetting his apple cart. He wants to pass the whole Lange case off on some occult squad. Cohle suspects this isn’t quite so metaphysical as all that. The mind of a psychopath can make rituals out of anything. They don’t have to be religious. They don’t have to be spiritual. They can be the workings of a mind that pieces things together just so they make sense. The mind ritualizes so it can contain the spillover. Cary Fukunaga, the director, lets that spill out of the camera. Det. Maynard Gilbough (Michael Potts) and Detective Shinn (Eric Price) were probably sent in to dispel some doubts about the way Cohle handled the case. But they’re in the shit today and when they leave the files for Cohle to find, they know they’re getting return on their investment. At the very least, they’re going to find out about the shootout.
I’ve briefly talked about Nic Pizzolatto, the screenwriter. I noted the research he went through just in the “Devil Trap” placement, but I haven’t given him enough space as a maker of dialogue. The words Pizzolatto puts in the mouths of Cohle and Harte are masterful. They hold big secrets. They have great humor. They are very human, especially when they are decrying humanity. This Pizzolatto guy must be a real cynic, the way he makes Cohle talk. Either that or he’s just a deep thinker who gets too deep into his characterizations. I wonder if he’s destroyed a relationship or two just to put it into words that he puts in someone else’s mouth.
I can watch Woody and Matt’s conversations even without the plot. The way they bob and weave, it’s like two middleweights. All of the acting is top of the game stuff, but these two together, barely being kept from each other’s throats, is a ball. They bite down on their best lines and spit them out like darts only to be caught in the other’s teeth and nibbled before swallowing. At heart, this is all gearing up to a gun battle and these guys are the id and ego of Gary Cooper in High Noon. They are all-American. They may not be silent but they’re strong and their strengths are being tested. The sun reaches high noon in the middle of the day though. They may be facing a monster, but it won’t be under cover of darkness. This monster is going to be in their face. He may be strutting around in his underwear but his face is covered with a gas mask. Nightmare in the afternoon and there’s still a whole day to go.