The first time we see Matthew McConaughey in HBO’s new anthology series True Detective, he’s sporting long hair and a droopy mustache, not immediately recognizable till you hear the familiar drawl. His character, Rust Cohle, is being interviewed by a couple of cops, and the first impression is that he’s a suspect in some crime. But Cohle is soon revealed to be the former partner of Martin Hart, a detective played by Woody Harrelson, who’s the first face we see, in a similar interview scene.
The present-day interviews are connected to a case with occult overtones that Cohle and Hart worked in 1995, although the mystery is one of the least important things about True Detective, which is more about the relationship between its two lead characters. Even when they’re younger, Hart has an everyguy attitude and a bit of a paunch, while Cohle is gaunt, psychologically damaged, hyperintelligent and pessimistically philosophical. He’s the kind of guy you try hard to open up, and then want to quickly close down again when he won’t stop talking.
People have a tendency to tell Cohle to shut up, but you may find yourself wishing he’d raise his voice more. As directed by Cary Fukunaga ( Sin Nombre, 2011’s Jane Eyre), McConaughey speaks most of his lines in a low-key monotone, as if everything Cohle says has so much gravity that it can barely be lifted. That tendency is continual through the early episodes of True Detective, so much that when Harrelson’s character and his wife (Michelle Monaghan) have an argument in the second episode, it comes as a relief when they start yelling at each other.
Written by crime novelist Nic Pizzolatto, the first season of True Detective is set in his native Louisiana, in a rural area that’s as bleak as the cold Detroit of Low Winter Sun and the rainy Seattle of The Killing (for which Pizzolatto wrote a few episodes). It’s an ambitious drama that’s a meditation on violence and the toll it takes on the police who investigate it. It’s an intelligent story, with its existential dialogue and stark, striking cinematography in exterior scenes.
It’s also hard to warm up to — more meditation than drama, more talk than action, too often crossing the line from ambition to pretension. After a while, Cohle’s dark outlook on life starts to flirt with becoming unintentionally funny, because it’s so relentless; at least he starts getting in sarcastic jabs a few episodes in, but McConaughey seems constrained by the character. Harrelson, as a cop with his own flaws and demons, at least gets to add some levity to the dreariness with his breezy reactions to some of Cohle’s pronouncements.
This was obviously a labor of love for the two actors, with Harrelson having left TV mostly behind for movies long ago, and McConaughey on a career roll with acclaimed performances in such movies as Killer Joe, Mud, Magic Mike and Dallas Buyers Club (OK, and a recurring role in Eastbound & Down). And although the show overdoes the navel-gazing a bit, its thoughtfulness makes it hard to dismiss completely (and will no doubt appeal to viewers weary of so many nonthoughtful choices on TV).
But its dreariness makes it a bit of a slog, and a risk — viewers don’t seem to be taking to these downbeat dramas as much as they used to. That the story is only eight episodes long makes it a little easier to take. True Detective is supposed to change its novelesque stories with every season. Even if the later ones are as grim, maybe they won’t take themselves quite as seriously.