This True Detective review contains spoilers.
True Detective Season 1 Episode 1
There are all kinds of cops. They fit a kind of category: The bully, the charmer, the surrogate dad, the man possessed by ungovernable rage, the brain and the regular dude with a big ass dick. Any of them could be a good cop or an incompetent shitheel. HBO’s True Detective follows two cops who don’t fit into any easy categories. Rust Cohle and Martin Hart are former homicide detectives who are called in to tell a new team of cops about an old case that they thought was closed.
In the early nineties, Dora Lang was found dead in a sugar cane field strung up in a very intricate ritualistic position. A fetish in several senses of the word. She had horns wrapped on her head. Ligature marks, hemorrhaging and ritual cuttings covered her body. She was dead before she was moved into the position. Whoever killed Dora Lang has been doing these kinds of things for a while, at least according to one of the detectives, who has taken intricate notes, complete with drawings and diagrams. The two homicide detectives assigned to the case are new to each other. One is a mystery wrapped in an enigma that comes in a six pack. The other is a family guy wrapped a little too tight. One is the kind of cop who explodes. The other, the kind who implodes.
Rust Cohle is new to Louisiana, his records have been redacted, he’s the classified man. The other guys on the force call him the Taxman because he wrote intricate notes, drew and speculated in a large ledger. Not a bad nickname as nicknames go, and he could have done much worse. He’s not particularly well liked. Cohle is kept on the job by Martin Hart, who’s been on the force long enough to know how to blow off steam and keep Weezer greased. Cohle is not the greasing kind, unless he’s trying to score ludes.
Hart doesn’t really like Cohle, certainly doesn’t want to hear him talk, but he vouches for his partner as a good cop. Because of Hart’s endorsement to his chief, Major Ken Quesada (Kevin Dunn), Cohle is kept on the case. Years later, a decade since the two had even spoken, Hart gives the same appraisal to the new cops who have caught the old case. He tells Det. Maynard Gilbough (Michael Potts) and Detective Shinn (Eric Price) that, strange as he is, Cohle is a good, solid cop.
Quesada is cousins with the governor of Louisiana, who wants to push through a law with special prosecution for anti-Christian crimes. This really doesn’t sit well with nihilistic Rust Cohle. But, as Hart has said, Cohle would pick a fight with the sky over the tint of its blue. Cohle doesn’t say much and when he does talk, most people just tell him to shut up. Just shut the fuck up. The one person on the show who bothers to listen is Martin’s wife, Maggie Hart (Michelle Monaghan), who learns that Cohle’s nihilism has an excusable root cause. He lost his two-year-old daughter in an accident and his marriage was part of the collateral damage.
Martin Hart has never shot anyone. Rust Cohle has.
The case is going to impact their lives tragically. We know that from the opening scene where the new cops are interviewing the old cops. Woody Harrelson doesn’t start as a hot button, not in the present day or in the flashbacks. But there’s something in the way he’s playing it that says something gets broken in between the two cases. I also think he’s blowing off more steam than what he does at the neighborhood bar. There’s a scene with a lady from the court showing him some papers. Something in their body language says they’re a little closer than they’re letting on. It’s just a quick scene and you might miss it. It’s just a feeling. I might be reading more into it than I should. I do that. That’s why I like shows like this.
Mathew McConaughey brings a cool rebel feel to his damaged detective. When Cohle blows the beer money at the younger cops who are picking his brain apart, I can’t tell if that’s Cohle or McConaughey and I don’t care. That one blow, taunting, inviting, brings depth of character through humor and not a word is needed. It is pure force of personality acting and when it works, it works. I’m not saying McConaughey is playing any version of himself. He is completely disappeared in this part. He found a little window that shares rooms with Rust Cohle. Cohle is a deep thinker most of the time, but when he lets his hair down, his thoughts run headlong into an abyss that alienates anyone who sees any light at the end of the tunnel.
I will say this up front, even though it’s in the back paragraph. There is no bullshit in True Detective. There are no POV shots of victims staring down the business end of a barrel. There are no slow-motion heroics. There are no bullets flying. Oh, there might be a shooting or two, but it won’t be stylized. The strength of True Detective will be the plot and the acting. The darkness that creeps into the tiny Louisiana town. The Devil Traps. The dead woman in the woods. The missing kids. I don’t want to give too much away. You want to know what’s going on in True Detective? Then start asking the right fucking questions.