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
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