If you're a social media junkie, like me, you'll have known of HBO's True Detective long before it arrived on these shores. The moody trailer promised us something 'deep and dark' was going down in Louisiana and with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson on the case, I was signed up from pretty much the word go. The trailer was perhaps a little misleading, promising an action thriller-esque show with lots of men stalking about with weapons drawn and pensive expressions as they use doorframes for cover. I'm sure we'll get to that in the later episodes, but The Long Bright Dark is something much more of the slow-burner variety, a moody opening that establishes the chess pieces before the ongoing investigations inevitably shift them around the board. And shift them they do.
The story of investigating an disturbing murder which questions all our two detectives hold dear may not be the most original of tales, but the beauty of it here is in the construction. Taking place across two timelines, possibly linked by the same serial killer, True Detective introduces us to Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart, two detectives with the Louisiana State Police. In one timeline, set in 1995, we follow their initial investigation of the fetishistic murder of Dora Kelly Lange. The other timeline is set seventeen years later as Cohle and Hart are questioned by Michael Papania (Tory Kittles) and Maynard Gilborough (Michael Potts) about the Lange case following a similar murder in the present day. The interviews frame the 1995-set narrative with answers to questions not only helping with exposition, but also providing a contemplative voiceover to the proceedings.
The complex structure embodies the confidence that the show has for itself from the opening credits; the writing is assured, the themes subtly woven through and the central characters arriving fully formed, warts and all. McConaughey continues to push those godawful rom-coms out of everyone's minds with another electric performance as Rust, a nihilistic intellectual who swallowed a lot of philsophy and likes to give weighty existential monologues on long car journeys. With his stiff gait and almost monosyllabic tone, Rust would be dull in the hands of a lesser actor. As it stands with McConaughey, Rust is a fascinating enigma to unravel, with flashes of black humour interspersed with philosophical ramblings. The contrast between 1995 Rust and his present day self borders on the extreme, a hint towards the disintegration not only of himself but of his relationship with Marty.
Marty is a different kettle of fish to Rust altogether and doesn't have a whole lot of time for his partner's dark outlook on the world, pushing for something slightly more optimistic instead. Harrelson's prickly chemistry with his co-star works particularly well and the scenes in the car and their conversations prove to be the highlight in this episode. Harrelson's square-jawed detective provides a stark contrast to his partner across both timelines, more keen to hold on to some kind of faith and having gone through the post-police work transition more successfully. The pair play off each other well and their partnership is one of mutual respect if not overly friendly. As we know they work together for seven years before a rupture of some kind, but even after three months, it's clearly an uneasy relationship.
With its apparent occult links, the central murder of Dora Kelly Lange plays into some of the anxieties which unsettle the relationship. Rust struggles with the constant background of a religious society, one which Marty continues to support and empathise with. These darker occult connotations of the murder with the antlers and the straw figurines found at two crime scenes lend True Detective the darker note that it promised us back in the trailer. It is helped in no small part by the sweltering Louisiana setting and a marvellous bluesy soundtrack and score from T Bone Burnett (it’s going to be very good for my music collection judging from this first episode). For 1995, the cinematography is hazy and oppressive and Cary Fukunaga’s direction doesn’t shy away from the darker corners of the story, focusing in to a sometimes unnerving degree.
For the most part, The Long Bright Dark is a strong opening, full of promise and intrigue and with two brilliant characters to lead it. However, the problem with two such characters is that it throws into sharp relief that the other people who populate Cohle and Hart’s lives haven’t yet been given a large amount of work. Of course, it is difficult to establish everything and everyone in an opening episode, but Michelle Monaghan’s Maggie, Hart’s wife, already feels like a tired stereotype. Monaghan is an excellent actress and I’m slightly worried that she’ll be reduced to the furious harridan of a detective’s wife before long. Likewise, the presence of female characters is somewhat lacking aside from Maggie; any we meet are secretaries, prostitutes or dead. With excellent female character work becoming something of the norm in big event television (Cersei Lannister or Claire Underwood for example), it’s always noticeable when they’re lacking. I hope to be proven wrong.
That aside, this is an assured piece of work, stripping back the mystery layer by small layer whilst keeping enough back to maintain intrigue. I’m already gripped.
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