‘True Detective’ mid-season recap

Stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are a small-screen tour de force in this dark, gritty Southern mystery series.  (Photo provided by hbowatch.com)
Stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are a small-screen tour de force in this dark, gritty Southern mystery series. (Photo provided by hbowatch.com)

“True Detective” is a miniseries about a murder that’s indifferent to the actual crime.

Rather than turn into a standard “whodunit”, the murder quickly fades to the background as the show immerses itself in its two main characters.  This is for the best, as the detective duo, played by Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and Woody Harrelson (“The Hunger Games”), is riveting every second they spend on screen.

Five episodes in, McConaughey has positioned himself to be showered with awards next year. He reigns in his movie star energy and swagger to bring us the droll Rust Cohle, an eerily calm detective who appears primed to explode at any time. He spends a large amount of his screen time spouting psychobabble and Nietzschean beliefs to Harrelson’s Marty Hart. Hart, a perfect role for Harrelson that may end up overlooked in the shadow of McConaughey’s, is almost never a willing listener, creating a tense but entertaining dynamic between the two.

The story flips between 1995, when the original murder case is given to Cohle and Hart, and 2012, where they are describing the original case to detectives investigating a similar murder. The time shift allows for a lot of creativity from writer Nic Pizzalatto, as what the detectives are describing in 2012 as happening 17 years earlier is not always what we see when placed in 1995. At this point, McConaughey’s character looks almost nothing like his 1995 self. He drinks a steady stream of beer cans in the interrogation room and sports a handlebar mustache with gnarly long blond hair.

The show makes clear something happened to send Cohle from point A to B, and the mystery of figuring out what that was often outweighs the mystery of the murder.

“True Detective’s” opening sequence shows silhouettes of McConaughey and Harrelson with a slew of objects projected onto them, setting the tone for the type of dualities the show has obsessed over in its first five episodes. Cohle is unreadable to everyone around him. Though often carrying a large notepad and mainting a penchant for philosophical pontification, Cohle is not simply a thoughtful detail-oriented detective. He becomes an ass-kicker on multiple occasions, including a seven-minute tracking shot that dominated the discussion following episode four. Cohle spent five years undercover with biker gangs, and when he briefly re-inhabits that role, it’s unclear which version of himself he feels most natural in.

Hart, meanwhile, presents himself as a by-the-book family man, but he is shown having an affair and has little problem breaking protocol when the moments calls for it. He is tense around Cohle, clearly uncomfortable with his blunt honesty and refusal to play ball and interact with the other detectives in the bureau. The 17 years between the two settings have clearly aged him as well, but more subtly. He looks wearier, worn down by life. He justifies almost everything that happens to him as if a victim of the circumstances, a “detective’s curse.”

Beyond the brilliance of McConaughey and Harrelson, “True Detective” shines under the superb direction of Cary Fukunaga. The series is shot in southern Louisiana, and Fukunaga milks gothic beauty in every bayou shot. The visuals are slick and gorgeous to the point they give the show a trance-like feeling, blurring the line between reality and the hazy memories of the detectives telling the story.

With only three episodes left in this first installment, a question surrounding “True Detective” becomes about what’s next. Pizzalatto has said the plan for the show is to follow an anthology format, similar to FX’s “American Horror Story.” Pizzalatto’s strong writing and Fukunaga’s brilliant direction will certainly bring viewers back for more, but McConaughey and Harrelson have both been so vital to the show’s identity that its hard to imagine any other duo able to come in and follow in their footsteps.

But that’s for the future. In the meantime, we have three more episodes to take in the dark and beautiful creepiness of this installment of “True Detective” before both actors ride off into the sunset of Hollywood, Emmys and Golden Globes in hand.

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