April 2014

Arts & Letters

‘True Detective’

By Anwen Crawford
HBO / Foxtel Showcase

Halfway through the final episode of the first season of True Detective, HBO’s latest television hit, I started thinking about The Wicker Man (1973). It’s a British horror classic, and one of the most cultish of cult films.

In The Wicker Man, a virginal, Christian police officer named Howie (Edward Woodward) travels to the fictional Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance and possible murder of a young girl. The island is ruled in a quasi-feudal fashion by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), who encourages the locals in pagan worship, including harvest rituals, animal masks and plenty of alfresco sex. The magnificent breasts of Britt Ekland take a starring role in one key scene, but there’s more to the film than simply rolling in the hayfields. I’ve only seen it once, but it lingers in my imagination. The Wicker Man is genuinely strange.

True Detective tries very hard to be strange, but never becomes more than a digest of Southern Gothic clichés. Hillbillies, incest, voodoo, tent revivalism, decaying plantation estates: all this is ready and waiting for our titular detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) as they drive among the Louisiana bayous. In the season finale, the two men at last enter evil’s lair. The difference between The Wicker Man and True Detective is that, in the former, lawfulness is not just threatened, it is entirely overturned. True Detective keeps hinting at this – the rural Louisiana tradition of Courir de Mardi Gras gets a few mentions, and there is much tedious philosophising from Cohle about The Ultimate Chaos of All Things – but the attitude is decoration, not substance.

Cohle dispenses sub-Nietzschean aphorisms like other, less annoying people might drop cigarette butts – and he has no shortage of those, either. “Time is a flat circle” is the silliest. Aren’t all circles flat, mathematically speaking? Despite, rather than because of, such clunkers, McConaughey delivers a marvellous performance, with a perfect foil in Woody Harrelson’s dry exasperation – the show’s sole source of humour. McConaughey is a sure bet for an Emmy to go alongside his recent Oscar (for Dallas Buyers Club), and thus his character arc from Romantic Comedy Guy to Serious Actor Dude will be complete.

True Detective gathered 3.52 million viewers in the US for its final episode and spawned an algal bloom across the internet: episode recaps, whodunnit theories, GIFs, essays and every shade of fanboying in between. It’s a show about men, and men have thrilled to discuss it. The New Yorker’s television critic Emily Nussbaum was right when she described the show as “one about heroic male outlines and close-ups of female arses”.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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