Graeme Blun­dell re­views Way­ward Pines

M. Night Shya­malan brings his skills to long-form TV in a se­ries with a labyrinthine plot set in a night­mare zone

The Weekend Australian - Review - - INSIDE - Graeme Blun­dell Way­ward Pines, Thurs­day, 8.30pm, FX. The Jinx, Thurs­day, 7.30pm, Show­case.

You may re­mem­ber direc­tor M. Night Shya­malan, once de­clared Steven Spiel­berg’s heir af­ter mil­lions were mes­merised by The Sixth Sense and its tan­gi­ble sense of dread. His ca­reer lan­guished as he re­peated the same con­ven­tions and a tired hint of new-age mys­ti­cism to keep his frus­trated fans re­turn­ing; he protests, though, that he’s still mo­ti­vated by char­ac­ter-driven tales, fo­cus­ing on or­di­nary peo­ple deal­ing with the un­known.

Well, like so many movie di­rec­tors, he has moved to tele­vi­sion with Way­ward Pines, a ter­rific new se­ries ful­fill­ing his abid­ing de­sire to cel­e­brate “B-gen­res treated as A-gen­res” and a “spir­i­tu­al­ity that isn’t re­li­gious”. It’s a chance to res­ur­rect his ca­reer.

On the sur­face, it’s a slick ac­tion thriller over­laid with hor­ror, science fic­tion and dystopian tropes, and the first episode clev­erly cre­ates mys­ter­ies within mys­ter­ies in­side a deftly coun­ter­pointed, splin­tered chronol­ogy. It’s a story of which David Lynch might be proud, or Stephen King for that mat­ter.

Based on the best­selling books by Blake Crouch and in­spired by Twin Peaks, the 10-part event se­ries stars Matt Dil­lon as a Se­cret Ser­vice agent con­fined to a sin­is­ter town (Shya­malan calls it “the trapped genre” of hor­ror). It fea­tures an all-star cast in­clud­ing Carla Gug­ino, Melissa Leo, Toby Jones, Juliette Lewis, Ter­rence Howard and Shan­nyn Sos­sa­mon.

Dil­lon plays Ethan Burke, an es­teemed but abrupt Se­cret Ser­vice agent who heads out to Way­ward Pines search­ing for two Seat­tle of­fice agents who went miss­ing, one of whom is Gug­ino’s Kate Hew­son, Burke’s part­ner and the woman who once dis­turbed his mar­riage.

In­volved in a car crash, re­gain­ing con­scious­ness by a stream in a dense pine for­est, blood­ied and limp­ing, he stag­gers into the sun­light. He then finds him­self talk­ing to a psy­chi­a­trist who asks him if he’s experiencing hal­lu­ci­na­tions — “Peo­ple or ob­jects that aren’t re­ally there” — and ag­o­nis­ing over a case that went bad, some­thing to do with “the Easter bomb­ings”. Al­ready there’s a lot go­ing on.

The next fast cut takes him into the small town­ship of Way­ward Pines, where he col­lapses and awak­ens in a seem­ingly empty hos­pi­tal tended by Nurse Pam, played with in­tense rel­ish by Leo, who wants to harm and not heal him, it seems. Es­cap­ing, Burke be­gins to re­alise quickly that some­thing is wrong with the town when he meets a bar­tender named Bev­erly (Lewis, in a nicely judged, earthy per­for­mance), who re­veals she went miss­ing one year ear­lier, in 1985 — while Burke is cer­tain it’s 2012.

Things get a lit­tle loop­ier when she hands him a note that says, “There are no crick­ets in Way­ward Pines.”

Then there’s the sus­pi­ciously easy­go­ing Sher­iff Pope (Howard), who be­gins to an­tag­o­nise Burke — who in turn has no idea where he is or what to do. The sit­u­a­tion is made worse when he dis­cov­ers that the road that leads out of town only takes him back, and that a gi­gan­tic metal fence sur­rounds the place.

It’s all to­tally en­joy­able, pacy and vivid, with nicely tem­pered per­for­mances mak­ing much of the hu­mour to be ex­tracted from some­what ar­che­typal roles. Dil­lon is a fine, hard-boiled hero ob­ses­sively search­ing for a hid­den truth, and the se­ries is one for the long haul.

It’s splen­didly di­rected by Shya­malan with a nice nod to Twin Peaks — al­lu­sions to the darker truths hid­den be­neath the friendly, kitschy sur­face — but with his own idio­syn­cratic touch, that high-end cin­e­mat­i­cally re­alised twi­light zone shak­ily suspended be­tween re­al­ity and night­mare.

He’s ob­vi­ously veru much at home with a plot that prom­ises labyrinthine com­plex­ity, frac­tured time se­quences as flash­backs in­ter­sect present ac­tion, and char­ac­ters try­ing to re­con­struct the past, comb­ing it for clues, facts and an­swers.

Shya­malan is ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer and di­rects the pi­lot episode, set­ting the tone and aes­thetic, based on a script by Chad Hodge — cre­ator of an­other noir-in­flu­enced mys­tery TV se­ries, the short-lived The Play­boy Club. The much ma­ligned direc­tor was ob­vi­ously un­daunted by the amount of long-term think­ing and the sheer quan­tity of im­me­di­ate con­tent that must be cre­ated and pro­cessed so quickly in this new world of long-form TV sto­ry­telling.

Af­ter read­ing the script it came down to one cri­te­rion for Shya­malan: “I called every­body and I said, ‘Lis­ten, as long as every­body isn’t dead, I’m in.’ ”

There are dead at the cen­tre of the ac­claimed HBO fea­ture doc­u­men­tary se­ries The Jinx, subti­tled The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which started last Thurs­day like an episode of True De­tec­tive, with the dis­cov­ery of a grue­somely dis­mem­bered body off the coast of Galve­ston, Texas.

Like Nic Piz­zo­latto’s great gothic cop drama direc­tor, An­drew Jarecki’s six-part story is car­ried along ir­re­sistibly by a heavy loan of atavis­tic ap­pre­hen­sion, dis­quiet and strange fas­ci­na­tion. Jarecki foren­si­cally ex­am­ines the life and times of Durst, the reclu­sive prop­erty mil­lion­aire at the heart of three killings span­ning four decades and long a sus­pect in the no­to­ri­ous 1982 dis­ap­pear­ance of his wife Kathie.

Fur­ther sus­pi­cion was raised with the un­solved killing of his con­fi­dante Su­san Ber­man, thought to be a key wit­ness in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Kathie’s dis­ap­pear­ance in 2000.

Then there was the sub­se­quent dis­mem­ber­ment of a Galve­ston neigh­bour, where Jarecki’s story so sen­sa­tion­ally be­gins.

The se­ries is not to be missed even if you didn’t catch the first episode; it’s easy to pick up and it is in the sec­ond chap­ter of this com­plex story that the nar­ra­tive is turned in­side out. Dur­ing ex­clu­sive in­ter­views with Jarecki, Durst, who of­fered him­self for in­ter­ro­ga­tion, talks with star­tling can­dour, re­veal­ing the se­crets of a case that has baf­fled au­thor­i­ties for 30 years.

The cli­mac­tic scene in the first episode was a slow-mo­tion se­quence (Jarecki loves them) of the ac­cused, sur­rounded by guards and TV cam­eras, mak­ing his way to a hear­ing af­ter be­ing charged with dis­mem­ber­ment. Would we be­lieve him or not? Which parts of this bizarre story have been made up and which are true? “I’m try­ing not to plan what kind of look to have on my face,” he tells his wife in a phone con­ver­sa­tion, later used as ev­i­dence, that plays over. “Am I sup­posed to be smil­ing? Sup­posed to be grim?” She says, “If you’re think­ing of ex­pres­sion, I would just have, like, a close to no ex­pres­sion; that’s what I think.”

It is all so per­sua­sively con­structed as a story that we just have to find out more about this man, but at this point have lit­tle idea how our self-serv­ing per­cep­tions will be whit­tled away as Jarecki starts his in­ter­views this week. We watch it un­fold quite spec­tac­u­larly, as it did for Jarecki and his col­lab­o­ra­tors.

Para­dox­i­cally, this grim lit­tle man, as ar­ro­gant and de­luded as he is ob­vi­ously crushed with emo­tional pain and con­fu­sion, and of­ten al­most touch­ingly frag­ile, makes us be­lieve and dis­be­lieve him some­how at the same time, as Jarecki’s cam­eras hover around him so sub­jec­tively. He says it’s a chance to tell the story his way, “and if some­body is rea­son­ably open to a dif­fer­ent story and sit­u­a­tion to what has been put in the me­dia they’ll have an op­por­tu­nity to be­lieve it”.

It’s a sem­i­nal se­ries that stretches the bound­ary be­tween fact and fic­tion, truth par­layed with great imag­i­na­tive in­ten­sity. Jarecki us­ing ev­ery sto­ry­telling trick in the fic­tion writer’s man­ual to in­volve and even­tu­ally im­pli­cate us — jux­ta­pos­ing archival footage, art­ful and moody reen­act­ments, in­ter­views with par­tic­i­pants, TV and ra­dio grabs, phone in­ter­cepts, po­lice files and pri­vate pri­son record­ings. Of course, it’s so well done you are never sure what is real and what is art­fully shot and di­rected by Jarecki to ap­pear like its ac­tu­al­ity — even the home movies of Durst’s child­hood look as if they have been re-cre­ated.

There is no doubt, too, that we have a fas­ci­na­tion for seem­ingly un­premed­i­tated, un­mo­ti­vated mur­ders and the way they are imag­i­na­tively scru­ti­nised for a sec­ond time on TV as cold cases, the film­mak­ers act­ing as in­ves­ti­ga­tors. As The New York Times’ AO Scott pointed out re­cently, film­mak­ers have taken over some of the du­ties of print jour­nal­ists by turn­ing out pro­files of in­ter­est­ing and fa­mous peo­ple, works of re­portage and ad­vo­cacy on im­por­tant so­cial is­sues, and dis­patches from ex­otic and over­looked places. “To watch th­ese movies is to be ed­i­fied and en­light­ened,” he says, “to have your as­sump­tions about the world chal­lenged or con­firmed, to feel a lit­tle more en­gaged with ur­gent and dif­fi­cult mat­ters.”

Matt Dil­lon and Juliette Lewis in Way­ward Pines

Reclu­sive prop­erty mil­lion­aire Robert Durst in the ac­claimed six-part HBO doc­u­men­tary The Jinx

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