BACK ON THE CASE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

sa cre­ator, you al­ways have one eye on the back of the room, where you know they’re load­ing their guns and build­ing your gal­lows,” writer and pro­ducer Nic Piz­zo­latto told the Hol­ly­wood Re­porter re­cently. “You al­most feel like is­su­ing a dis­claimer: ‘This show will not change your life.’ ”

He was talk­ing, of course, about the new sea­son of HBO’s True De­tec­tive, which started last Mon­day (the first episode is re­played this week, pre­ced­ing the sec­ond chap­ter com­ing ex­press from the US). The orig­i­nal eight-parter, orig­i­nally con­ceived as a novel, was the mes­meris­ing drama that made for­mer bar­tender turned nov­el­ist Piz­zo­latto fa­mous, along with di­rec­tor Cary Fuku­naga.

Its cen­tral char­ac­ters were two tor­mented Louisiana cops: Woody Har­rel­son’s good ol’ boy Martin Hart, a man of un­rav­el­ling de­mons, and Os­car-win­ner Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, who viewed the world ni­hilis­ti­cally as noth­ing but pain and suf­fer­ing. The show en­com­passed many other gen­res into a con­tem­po­rary western, its in­ves­ti­ga­tors spir­i­tual an­ces­tors of the type of gun­fight­ers who set­tled the fron­tier but who now wan­dered this ex­hausted place look­ing for re­demp­tion.

It was a neo-noir crime drama — su­perbly shot by Adam Arka­paw, di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy for Top of the Lake — that felt and sounded star­tlingly orig­i­nal, an amal­gam of high­brow fic­tion, thriller, philo­soph­i­cal primer, cut­ting so­cial com­men­tary and a fine piece of po­lice pro­ce­dural.

There’s no re­la­tion­ship be­tween the sto­ries or char­ac­ters in the new sea­son with that of the first. Piz­zo­latto com­mit­ted to some­thing new from the start, but he felt “the sea­sons have a deep, close bond in sen­si­bil­ity and vi­sion, a sim­i­lar soul, though this is a more com­plex world and field of char­ac­ters”. Af­ter watch­ing the first episode, again writ­ten by Piz­zo­latto but this time di­rected by Justin Lin (of the Fast and Fu­ri­ous fran­chise), that’s easy to see.

Piz­zo­latto de­liv­ers on some sky-high ex­pec­ta­tions, of­fer­ing as much plea­sure as be­fore, this time with­out the south­ern gothic mon­strosi­ties and those per­plex­ing oc­cult sym­bols drawn from so-called “weird fic­tion”. (You re­mem­ber how the show’s con­nec­tion to The King in Yel­low, a hor­ror story col­lec­tion by Robert W. Cham­bers, with Piz­zo­latto’s script ref­er­enc­ing not only the Yel­low King but the cursed fic­tional city of Car­cosa — plucked by Cham­bers from the sem­i­nal work of Am­brose Bierce — al­most drove us crazy for a while?)

It’s set in the blighted fic­tional mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Vinci in LA County, an in­dus­trial me­trop­o­lis the news­pa­pers call the “City of Vice” that leads the coun­try in toxic emis­sions and un­doc­u­mented work­ers. (And this new land­scape has its own unique, un­set­tling voice, and what Piz­zo­latto calls “a dis­con­cert­ing psy­chol­ogy”.)

Last week’s first episode es­tab­lished Vince Vaughn as Frank Se­myon, a crim­i­nal and prop­erty en­tre­pre­neur now go­ing le­git, buy­ing up parcels of land along­side a new high-speed rail cor­ri­dor that will run through the mid­dle of Cal­i­for­nia, at­tract­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars of fed­eral grants. But af­ter miss­ing city man­ager Ben Caspere was found on a lonely stretch of the high­way near Big Sur — his eyes burnt out, gen­i­tals shot off — Se­myon’s bright fu­ture is threat­ened.

Three cops from dif­fer­ent law en­force­ment agen­cies find them­selves in­volved in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Colin Far­rell’s Ray Vel­coro, a com­pro­mised, al­co­holic city homi­cide de­tec­tive so emo­tion­ally dis­turbed he verges on the psy­cho­pathic, is owned by Se­myon and as­signed to the case. The dead man was found by Tay­lor Kitsch’s also trou­bled High­way Pa­trol of­fi­cer and war vet Paul Woodrugh, a man on en­forced leave for some sort of il­licit road­side li­ai­son with a Hol­ly­wood ac­tress. Un­set­tled, bat­tle-scarred, he spends his nights hurtling his mo­tor­cy­cle at high speeds along the free­ways. (“I like the high­way, it suits me,” he says. “I’m no good on the side­lines.”)

His 9/11 call also fetches the sher­iff’s depart­ment’s Ani Bezzerides, played by Rachel McA­dams, a cop who de­spises the sys­tem she serves, full of dis­gust and rage for the world and men es­pe­cially. (As played by McA­dams, squeez­ing all the juice out of the role, she’s a char­ac­ter of un­set­tling at­trac­tive­ness.)

That’s where we left the first episode, the three cops star­ing at each other over the corpse, Piz­zo­latto set­ting up a com­pli­cated web of dif­fer­ent agen­cies with dis­sim­i­lar agen­das to in­ves­ti­gate what un­doubt­edly will turn out to be mul­ti­ple crim­i­nal com­plic­i­ties.

Some of these char­ac­ters of such star­tling per­ver­sity may find some re­demp­tion along the way, though this seems un­likely as much as we may hope for it to hap­pen. (Far­rell’s fe­ro­ciously mous­ta­chioed, di­shev­elled and vi­o­lent Vel­coro so far has de­liv­ered only two co­her­ent lines: “I welcome judg­ment” and “I’ll butt-f..k your fa­ther on this lawn with your mother’s head­less corpse.”)

While there are some flash­backs, there is not the com­pli­cated mem­ory struc­ture of the first se­ries but a more lin­ear and in­te­grated nar­ra­tive. Piz­zo­latto said, in an another short HBO in­ter­view just be­fore re­lease, that he had tried to be open to what­ever struc­ture the story and char­ac­ters sug­gested as he wrote, and the char­ac­ters mul­ti­plied and their in­di­vid­ual and group com­pli­ca­tions grew. I like the way, em­pha­sised by Lin’s di­rec­tion which holds with the uber­cool style es­tab­lished by Fuku­naga, the show is de­signed as a se­ries of vis­ual con­trasts be­tween day and night, shadow and light, of­ten in backto-back se­quences as the past in­ter­sects with the present. The mood is of im­pend­ing doom, shot through with vis­ual and ver­bal ironies, the air thick with sex and with catas­tro­phe. What’s not to like?

Fate hovers over these luck­less char­ac­ters, their di­rec­tion seem­ingly con­trolled. These are four sto­ries of ob­ses­sion and self-de­struc­tion that are acted out in a de­lib­er­ately cre­ated vac­uum, a sealed off place of air­less rooms, of threat­en­ing, lonely streets that look like those of Ed­ward Hopper, and empty con­crete free­ways and fly­overs.

For Piz­zo­latto’s char­ac­ters it’s all a mat­ter of some­how liv­ing in the “just now”, as one of them says; or as a bar singer played by coun­trynoir femme fa­tale Lera Lynn sings, they’re get­ting by, liv­ing “their least favourite life”. Prayers go un­heard in Vinci a sprawl­ing clas­si­cal labyrinth of con­crete and me­tal, a city of steel, one vast ma­chine for cre­at­ing wealth in which tech­nol­ogy spins free of moral checks and bal­ances.

In its stylised way — this is a se­ries that’s about style as much as any­thing else, Esquire’s Robert Marche call­ing it “an ex­er­cise in genre fused with ex­is­ten­tial­ism” — this show again is set up as a rich and ab­sorb­ing se­ries about the lim­its of moral char­ac­ter. Piz­zo­latto said of the first True De­tec­tive that there was a lot of what he called “a sig­nif­i­cant el­e­ment of real world hor­ror” in the se­ries — there’s cer­tainly that here as well — but it re­ally was about what he calls “a locked room, where ev­ery­one’s life ex­ists in its own in­ten­sity”, and in­side each locked room there just might be sev­eral houses. He’s fond of these kinds of Del­phic ut­ter­ances and made them through­out the pre­vi­ous se­ries on the HBO web­site, a source of some plea­sure for the show’s equally in­tense fans.

The per­for­mances are all

mes­meris­ing,

True De­tec­tive es­pe­cially McA­dams’s (her small fiery, hard­drink­ing Bezzerides looks as if she would beat the oth­ers easily in any arm wres­tle), the lan­guage again epi­gram­matic and el­lip­ti­cal, though so far lack­ing the po­et­i­cal ex­is­ten­tial­ist mus­ings of McConaughey’s Rust Cohle likely to ex­plode at any mo­ment, and Lin’s di­rec­tion gets the Cal­i­for­nia Chi­na­town noir tex­ture just right.

His fram­ing is of­ten slightly rest­less, as if grop­ing for the right com­po­si­tion; some­times there’s lit­tle on­go­ing sense of the fig­ures within a spa­tial whole. The bod­ies, frag­mented and smeared across the frame, don’t dwell within these lo­cales. They ex­ist in an ar­chi­tec­tural vac­uum, though Lin dis­dains much of the cheap, overly shaky, quick-cut­ting style that’s in­creas­ingly present in TV crime shows.

The sub­jec­tive hand­held aes­thetic is bal­anced by static wide shots, oddly ab­stract, like crime scene stills of the lo­ca­tions in which things have once hap­pened or are about to oc­cur. The whole aes­thetic is held to­gether by he­li­copter se­quences ris­ing up and above el­e­vated stretches of highways and in­ter­sect­ing over­passes.

The mu­sic, again by T Bone Bur­nett, is this time more deeply wo­ven tex­tu­ally into the fab­ric of the sto­ry­telling, driven by a syn­the­sised score that keeps re­ver­ber­at­ing and hum­ming, and a rip­ping sound­track that com­ple­ments and of­ten pro­pels it.

The ti­tle song this time is Leonard Co­hen’s harshly whis­pered Nev­er­mind: “There’s truth that lives and truth that dies. I don’t know which, so never mind.” It’s a great epi­graph for the show, which is full of haunting tunes from Bur­nette, Roseanne Cash and Lynn that ex­ude in­trigue and sor­row. You may have guessed I’m likin’ it; man, can’t wait for Mon­day.

Piz­zo­latto is right — a TV show can’t change your life but for a while it can make it a lot of cool fun.

Rachel McA­dams andnd Colin Far­rell in n

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