BACK ON THE CASE
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
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