Southern Gothic

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No HUGE spoilers here, but you might want to skip everything after the words “wrapped round head” if you’re still watching the show or planning to.

I caught the first episode of Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective on Sky Atlantic at a friend’s place in London, and then had to wait a while until I could see more. Then Fiona and I consumed it in almost one go. So I can attest that it’s a very well-conceived machine for inducing voraciousness in the audience.

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It also has two very showy star turns, with Matthew McConaughey using his newly acquired wiriness for the wired Detective Rust Cohle, a hallucinating synesthesic intellectual insomniac behaviorist atheist nihilist — manifested as stoned intensity with a John Carpenter makeover for the contemporary scenes. Woody Harrelson sucks his big wide Humpty Dumpty mouth into a tiny slit, lips like squinting eyelids, juts his jaw into an inverted Death Valley butte, setting off innumerable small pops, ripples and bladder-bubbles in his cheeks, while his furious ball-bearing eyes shoot murder from the shadow of his granite slab of brow.

The eight-episode structure proves really ideal, allowing a convoluted mystery to be ravelled up, without quite losing the viewer amid the tangle. Twin Peaks (an influence, I think, alongside James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia) and Lost went on so long their subplots and red herrings got attenuated into nothingness and even the show’s creators couldn’t remember how many balls they had in the air. There comes a point when a juggler stops juggling and just goes into a protective crouch with arms wrapped round head.

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The tendency of American films to pare away their interesting attributes and wind up with what Olivier Assayas characterises as “a fight in a warehouse” was also present, which meant the ending wasn’t as satisfying as it could have been. The show throws in hints of diabolical cults and widespread corruption and child abuse, but ends up handing us a disfigured serial killer and letting the rest slide. I’m curious as to whether the references to Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, which basically go nowhere, will be picked up in subsequent series. The idea that follow-ups will deal with different protagonists is a really appealing one. In any case, Rust Cohle is broken now, by which I mean he’s healed. If he’s not a soul-crushing pessimist, he’ll be no fun to have around.

As you can see, the title sequence is a masterpiece in itself. Series director Cary Fukunaga envisioned a Magritte-like feeling to the show’s use of flat landscapes, and that is taken up in the surreal title imagery, which at times recalls James Bond, True Blood, Polish movie posters and H.R. Geiger. By the eightth episode I was still spotting new details in the creds.

HBO’s True Detective – Main Title Sequence from Patrick Clair on Vimeo.

7 Responses to “Southern Gothic”

  1. Shane Danielsen Says:

    The two central performances are terrific, and thought it was really beautifully directed, for the most part. (And how talented, after this and ‘Top of the Lake’, is DOP Adam Arkapaw?) But I had the feeling that in the end it didn’t quite ‘earn’ its gloss of supernatural and philosophical references it had spent seven episodes evoking. (And as a Chambers fan, I’d been really curious to see how they’d use ‘The King in Yellow’.) All of that was mostly discarded in favour of a resolution that, as a procedural policier, didn’t really satisfy either, in plotting/ingenuity terms.

    Still, I don’t consider it wasted time; it was a pleasure to … well, savour is the wrong word, considering Vanessa and I gorged on it much like yourselves.

  2. That’s exactly it. The King in Yellow is used as bait to intrigue us, but doesn’t pay off meaningfully. What they resolve is the least interesting aspect. But as you say, getting there is a lot of fun.

    I’m hoping the follow-up series will make more use of mystic Carcosa and maybe reveal the evil conspiracy from a different angle. I like stretching my negative capability as much as the next man, but I’d probably rather never find out whodunnit (as in Zodiac) than find out who but not why.

  3. Robert Keser Says:

    What seemed fascinating to me is that every time a character would speak to police officials, the character became an unreliable narrator. We hear the “official” story at the same time that we see what really happened. This was true for the two protagonists but also true for the character of the wife, played by the excellent Michelle Monaghan.

  4. I found the fourth and fifth episodes so astonishingly good it was almost inevitable that the episodes after that couldn’t quite live up to them. The fifth, in particular, was one of the best and tensest things I’ve ever seen on TV.

    But the photography was unfailingly beautiful (though often in a grim way), the directing always purposeful and thrilling (not just the famous long-take shoot-out but a breathtakingly well-choreographed pan from the guy on the lawnmower all the way to the river, which comes into view at the exact same instant that a boat emerges from behind some trees), and the two leading performances mesmerising. Clearly the hook of the series is their relationship, rather than the case they’re working on.

  5. …and where the relationship goes to is kind of touching.

    Monaghan is REALLY good in this. She was always fine, but has been getting better and better. It’s a pretty good role, but the show is so male-centric I think she did well to make such an impact.

    The unreliable narrator device was very good. I can imagine a further development of it in which the audience isn’t let in on the truth until much later… Will US TV eventually go Marienbad?

  6. Not the same as an unreliable narrator, but Hannibal seems to be playing the Long Game. Without going into detail, so as not to spoil it for those who aren’t up to date, there are sequences in the second season that are only now casting light on some of the questions left unresolved in the first.

    And for those who haven’t seen any of it – Mads Mikkelsen is now, without question, the definitive Hannibal Lecter. He can give you chills with just the subliminal twitch of a cheek muscle. Hugh Dancy is coming along nicely too. If you’re not already watching this, I thoroughly recommend it.

  7. Fiona is keen to get started, so I guess we will after we finish House of Cards 2.

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