Watching the Detectives

When this year’s Oscars are handed out on March 2nd, and Matthew McConaughey has deservedly picked up the Best Actor award, attention can finally shift to his actual best performance of the past 12 months: not on the big screen in Dallas Buyers Club, but rather on TV in the role of Detective Rust Cohle in HBO’s new “anthology” series True Detective, due to air on Sky Atlantic on February 22nd. In what is certain to be one of the biggest ratings and critical successes of the year, McConaughey stars alongside Woody Harrelson, playing Marty Hart – two homicide detectives investigating a murder with occult overtones in rural Louisiana.

Separate from the quality assured by the backing of broadcaster HBO, there are a number of striking elements that distinguish this series from the lumpy police procedurals that clog up TV schedules. First, there is a cohesion and coherence that stems from having one writer, Nic Pizzolatto, and one director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, responsible for, respectively, the story and its presentation. Secondly, there is the fact that the show is structured as protracted interrogations of the two detectives 17 years after the initial investigation, which we observe in lengthy flashbacks. As the mystery of the murder investigation is unspooled through recollection, there remains the present-tense mystery of what precisely is being pursued in the separate questioning of Hart and Cohle. The final distinguishing feature of the series, and perhaps the most impressive, is the outstanding  quality of the performances.

On a roll with meaty parts in films such as Killer Joe and Mud, McConaughey tests himself even further by seizing the opportunity to play Rust Cohle, a brilliant, world-weary nihilist, whose own personal tragedy has liberated him from the niceties and self-censorship demanded by civil society. His Texan drawl savours every syllable as, between pursuing leads and examining clues, he reflects and expands on what he sees as the illusion of the self and his belief that human consciousness is “a tragic misstep in evolution.” In an exclamation that might have the Iona Institute taking legal advice, Rust impugns Christian faith, saying “If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then, brother, that person is a piece of shit.” The fact that his philosophical ruminations are suffered with head-shaking disbelief by a very grounded and unreflective partner, who advises him to “keep this shit to” himself, makes for one of the most entertaining onscreen odd couples of recent years.

In the less flamboyant role of the amiable, philandering Hart, Harrelson is every bit as impressive as McConaughey. Just as McConaughey’s voice relishes every beat of the great and grandiose dialogue he has been gifted, so too Harrelson’s face registers every emotion that courses below his good-ole-boy demeanour.  Harrelson will never achieve the prominence that McConaughey’s beauty has won for him, but, as actors, both men are cut from the same cloth. As McConaughey showed a long time ago with the derelict Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, and Harrelson similarly displayed in a delicious cameo in No Country for Old Men, both men are capable of taking the smallest of roles and making them a show-stopping delight. True Detective affords them all the time in the world to make the most of the strong material they’ve been given. It does not rush along a plot-driven course, allowing us to spend much more time in the entertaining company of the two men than would be accommodated by the rote three-act milk-run of most TV police procedurals.

Many critics will reach for “novelistic” – the adjective du jour in discussions of what is now often referred to as this “golden age of TV” – to account for the show’s less than frantic pacing and its other strengths, but that appeal to the respectability conferred by some other anointed art form is entirely unnecessary. While writer Nic Pizzolatto has published fiction and worked as a teacher of creative writing, he has himself acknowledged that shows such as Deadwood, The Wire, and The Sopranos…were actually filling my hunger for fiction as an audience more than the contemporary fiction that I was reading.” Indeed, some of the best features of True Detective find their most obvious source in these trailblazing HBO series. The procedural elements on show have more of the authentic workaday feel of The Wire than the flashy tech of CSI or NCIS. Marty’s infidelity and the attack-as-defence attitude he strikes at home to fend off his wife’s suspicions evoke the recurring domestic tensions between Tony and Carmela Soprano. Any fan of Deadwood will approvingly cock and ear when Cohle quotes a St. Paul verse that was also used in that earlier show to challenge the idea of the individual’s separateness from society.

If there is a novel, or rather series of stories, that informs the show, it seems to me to be a rather surprising one. At present, two TV series relocate the character of Sherlock Holmes to the present day. In the BBC’s more celebrated Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch embodies the great detective almost as someone on the autistic spectrum somehow edging closer to “normality” with each season through the improving influence of his grounded and kindly Doctor Watson. In the U.S.-based Elementary, Jonny Lee Miller is Holmes the recovering addict, with a female Watson (Lucy Liu) originally employed as his sober companion. Both of these versions have their fans, but True Detective might be the most inspired resurrection of the spirit of Alfred Conan Doyle’s consulting detective. Cohle is as insightful, knowledgeable and unconventional as Holmes, while Marty is very much the surprised, disbelieving companion, unable, or unwilling, to see past the familiar surface of everyday life to achieve the insight and acuity of his possibly unhinged partner. McConaughey gives us Holmes as a wounded pessimist with no time for the illogical pieties of respectable civilisation, whose only stimulation comes from pursuing a mystery to its explication. Harrelson’s Marty is the impressed Doctor Watson rooted to the ground by his appetites and ego. Despite the similarity to Holmes, however, Cohle never seem so unearthly as Holmes, as bound by the dictates of fictional superheroism. As we cut between the investigation and the interviews 17 years later, his decline is apparent. This is a man with a fascinating, perhaps tragic story, but not an archetype impervious to fear.

Despite all of its wordy pleasures and ambling storytelling form, True Detective is far from directionless. The show simply has a far greater tolerance for variety than, say, that evinced by the CSI franchise. Its occult elements, deployed minimally, evoke the dread possibilities once summoned up by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. On a similarly visceral level, it knows how to handle thrills and spills. In fact, the fourth episode climaxes with one of the most exciting action sequences ever staged for TV, as Cohle becomes caught up in a confrontation between a biker gang and a drug dealers in a six-minute, single continuous shot that is already the stuff of TV legend. It is one part Michael Mann and one part Grand Theft Auto, a tour de force of staging that makes most TV shoot-outs seem like the pat-a-cake choreography of the preschool Christmas play.

Pizzolatto promises that any further series, as suggested by the anthology label, will focus on new characters and tell a different setting. This storytelling model has the benefit of avoiding the slow rot that sets in when success demands that a show stretch on into seasons that exhaust its initial inspiration. This anthology formula is already being used to interesting effect in FX’s American Horror Story, each season of which tells a different story using the same actors as a kind of repertory company. At the end of the first season of True Detective, however, McConaughey and Harrelson will be released from their TV captivity back into the cinematic expanse. Only half way through this opening series, we can not only recline luxuriantly into one of the finest examples of recent TV drama, but also already begin to wonder which great actors might possibly recruited to tell a story as compelling and rewarding as this one.



This film’s defenders and enthusiasts tend to insist that it needs to be seen in 3D, preferably in IMAX 3D, in order to be fully appreciated. What’s odd about such a claim is that it ultimately condemns the very film it seeks to praise, since arguing that the movie can only be fairly judged using parameters which fall outside those used to assess every other modern film, means admitting that this is not really, in the fullest and most commonly accepted sense, a ‘film’ at all. It’s more of a fairground entertainment of some sort, an immersive spectacle that seeks to offer more than a mere ‘moving picture’ but actually ends up delivering far less.  Leaving aside the fact that cinema has its roots in exactly this sort of amusement park ride, the fundamental question remains: should this entertainment even be considered for an Academy Award? And what will its future be, once the theatrical runs peter out and the larger portion of its historical existence on disc, or digital download, begins?

So in fact it makes much more sense to jettison the 3D gimmickry, and consider the merits of ‘Gravity’ as a plain old film. As such, it has a lot going for it: state of the art technology, top-tier stars, enormous budget, big themes. Sadly, none of these elements can raise the film above mediocrity. And the double meaning of the title – referring not just to the weightlessness of space but also the grave danger the characters find themselves in – also threatens to collapse inwards, since the potentially serious thematic aspects (man’s predicament, alone in a Godless universe) are ignored in favour of thrills and spills.

Some of the early scenes are promising. That’s not to say that the film starts well: although the visuals are good, the first couple of minutes of the soundtrack are given over to annoyingly inaudible conversation being exchanged between Earth, and the astronauts played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, as well as between those characters and a couple of hardly seen minor figures who will be conveniently killed off in short order, leaving us with a lot of cutesy chit chat between the major stars. The plot gets going about twenty minutes in, when the space shuttle around which George and Sandra had been working, is catastrophically damaged by space debris, leaving the two surviving astronauts stranded with diminishing oxygen supplies. George has a fancy new jet pack, presumably supplied by some sort of NASA version of James Bond’s ‘Q’, which allows him to go scooting around willy nilly; Sandra becomes detached and begins drifting helplessly into open space, spinning and tumbling and panicking as the remaining percentage of her oxygen supply heads into single figures.  Rescue is at hand, though, in the form of Jet Set George, who comes blasting out to reel her back in. Anyone who has an existing aversion to George Clooney will find him hard to stomach here; this is far from his most subtle performance.

Anyway, so begins a series of mini crises, little cliff-hangers in the heavens, with each seemingly hopeful step towards a route back to terra firma interrupted by obstacles which are then duly overcome, the characters all the while evincing a puckish sense of humour about their perilous circumstances. “Clear skies, with a chance of space debris” quips Bullock at one stage, whist struggling through a situation that would have most of us wondering about the arrangements for waste disposal within our space suits.

Bullock, though, is made of sterner stuff, and despite having 0nly had six months’ rudimentary training (she’s a doctor, not a career astronaut) she is able to open airlocks on a variety of Russian and Chinese space stations, and can read the manuals and operate the controls inside them. There’s a twist concerning George Clooney’s character, around the one hour mark, which turns out not to be a twist at all; after this, the already fairly credulity-straining plot spirals into utter preposterousness, probably peaking at the point where Bullock uses a fire extinguisher to propel herself between a redundant escape pod (wouldn’t you know it, the fuel supply has run out, despite the pod never having been used), and the latest in a series of ‘last chance’ space stations.

But so what if the plot is silly? There’s no reason for the film not to work as an entertainment. What would Hitchcock have said about accusations of implausibility? No, the reason for the film’s failure lies with the script. Woeful dialogue predominates, and the story is just too corny and repetitive to offer any real sense of immersion or suspension of disbelief. Scene after scene plays out far too slowly, with lingering shots of not very much following each segment of obstacle circumvention. The decision to cut all contact with Earth, and keep it cut, probably was intended to generate a sense of heightened isolation; what it does, though, is rob of us of dialogue in the latter segments of the film. Bullock is left talking to herself, and this becomes increasingly inane.

Overall, this is a film that relies not just on cumbersome presentation technology , but also on our pre-existting sense of wonder about space. This in itself is a further fatal flaw, since our wonder is exactly that: pre-existing. The film has nothing to add to the scenes we’ve seen so many times before: Earth viewed from space; vast emptiness; floating silence. As an entertainment, with all the thrills of IMAX, this may work well. As a film, it’s just ok. Bullock is fine; Clooney is slightly irritating. The script is under-written, the story is hokum. The running time, to be fair, is a pleasantly uninflated 90 minutes. There was an opportunity here to make a genuinely fresh movie set in space but foregoing all that dreary Sci-fi nonsense about aliens and evil empires, focusing instead on the much more interesting subject of the human race itself; that opportunity has been missed. The result is an ok entertainment, and a pretty poor film.