Review: HBO’s ‘True Detective’ is a must-see gothic event

"True Detective" follows  Louisiana detectives Martin Hart (Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (McConnaughey) and their search for a serial killer that spans 17 years. Credit: HBO
“True Detective” follows Louisiana detectives Martin Hart (Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (McConnaughey) and their search for a serial killer that spans 17 years. Credit: HBO

It’s hard to come to terms with the fact the new detective series on HBO, starring none other than Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, is simply called “True Detective.” Where is the mystery in that name? The drama? The subtlety? How could the powers that be pick such a straightforward title for such a dark, twisted, compelling eight-part series? Perhaps HBO figured out that, with this much talent taking on this much rich material, they don’t need to play coy.

And luckily, they’re correct. Right from the outset, you know you are in the hands of masters. Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey portray partners in Louisiana’s Criminal Investigation Division tasked in finding the person responsible for a series of grim, occultist murders of area women. What draws you in isn’t the gothic narrative (although it should — it’s terrifying; in the crime scenes, the bodies of the women are staged in such a bizarre manner, complete with antlers, that the Blair Witch herself would high-tail it out of Louisiana), rather it’s the bruising performances of the two heavyweight actors. Gone are the men’s laconic, real-life personalities. With their firm smiles and dark drawls, they are the most captivating pair to hit the small screen in a very, very long time.

Matthew McConaughey plays detective Rust Cohle, a bloodhound who looks like someone central casting molded for a star detective – good looks, nice hair and a shiny badge that he rocks on his hip like nobody’s business. But Cohle’s personality doesn’t match his looks — he is combative and much too highbrow for the big-bellied, old-boy detective squad. Plus, he carries around a sketchbook filled with his fanciful doodles of dead bodies and the strange iconography from murder scenes. To nail down Cohle’s weird loner status, director Cary Fukunaga lets us peek into his sad apartment; you spot a mattress on the floor next to a haphazard stack of biographies of various serial killers. A crucifix nailed to the wall is the only adornment  (he doesn’t believe in religion but rather wants to meditate on the ultimate sacrifice.). Needless to say, he’s not having the guys over to watch the game any time soon.

On the other end of the spectrum, is Harrelson’s Martin Hart, a man’s man who continually harps on the fact that, because Cohle doesn’t have a family, he can’t be trusted (it turns out Cohle once had a family – and what happened to them might account for his slight attitude problem). Harrison nails that “faded football star” cop character well. He’s not all bluster and blunt edges, though— he’s smart enough to know that  Cohle’s cracked mind is going to be the key to solving the case, but wary enough to know he should tread lightly, as something is clearly very off. He knows that inviting Cohle into his inner sanctum will be disastrous. But decorum is important to Hart, so he invites his weird new partner over for dinner. “You don’t want to pick this man’s brain,” he advises his wife.

But pick they do, to unknown consequences. “True Detective” is told through alternating eras — the case in 1995 and the present day. In the forward-flashes to present day, Fukunaga shows that the madness Cohle flirted with in 1995 seems to have tipped, and not in his favor. So just what happened? Why the antlers? The bodies? What happened in that case to make Cohle lose his looks and his sanity, and Hart his marriage? That is the arc of “True Detective” — and it’s going to be very compelling (and creepy) to follow.

True Detective premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO. 



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