“I get a bad taste in my mouth out here,” says Matthew McConaughey’s gaunt and haunted Rust Cohle, a detective as tightly wound as a cramped muscle who is hunting a ritualistic serial killer in rural Louisiana in the 1980s. “Aluminum, ash. Like you can smell the psychosphere.”
The psychosphere is where most of the hugely promising new HBO crime series “True Detective” (January 12) appears to take place, an edge-of-perception realm you have to squint and turn sideways to see, in which abnormal states of consciousness almost, sort of, begin to make sense.
More sense, at least, in the context of the horrors these men encounter, than the level-headed norm. The straight and narrow is more than honorably represented here by Woody Harrelson, whose Martin Hart is a senior Louisiana State Police detective whose principled common sense types him as the Dr. Watson figure to McConaughey’s obsessive, friendless, alcoholic Holmes. And like Watson, Hart isn’t as blunt-minded as his genius partner may be inclined to assume. Harreleson adds an undercurrent of itchy anxiety to the role. Hart has a cozy-looking family and a lovely wife (played by Michelle Monaghan) but seems uneasy when he’s hanging out with them. There are implications of something unruly simmering in him that could erupt at any moment.
The eight-episode first season of “True Detective” is true auteur-TV, indisputably representing the vision of its sole writer and showrunner, Nic Pizzolatto, whose award-winning short story collection “Between Here and the Yellow Sea” and novel “Galveston” have attracted comparisons for their sheer bleakness to Cormac McCathy and Denis Johnson.
Pizzolatto has said that his overriding themes, “the big three,” are “sex, memory and death,” and if there’s a neater summation for the sub-genre of crime fiction known broadly as noir, I can’t imagine what it could be. (Novelist Megan Abbott’s “Starts bad, gets worse,” is also pretty good.) The element of memory, in fact, is built right into the structure of “True Detective,” which has a voiceover narrative, shared by the two cops, clipped from a series of depositions offered in the present by the former detective partners about their most celebrated and frustrating past investigation.
Pizzolatto’s aim in “True Detective” seems to be crafting an ultimate statement of the noir world view, a canonical statement. One version of it occurs in an extended declaration of personal philosophy that Hart drags out of the reluctant Cohle as they’re driving away from the grisly murder scene — and then wishes he hadn’t. It begins: “I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. … I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand and hand into extinction.”
“That sounds God fucking awful, Rust,” Hart exclaims, and who could blame him?
There is a clue to the show’s overall point of view in the way it looks, at least on the screener DVDs that were sent to critics: It’s one of the darkest television programs I’ve ever leaned forward and squinted at. Director Cary Fukanaga (“Sin Nombre,” “Jane Eyre”) and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (“Animal Kingdom”) envelope the performers in oily pools of pitch blackness, so that in some scenes even human profiles can barely be distinguished.
The lighting scheme works chillingly well whenever McConaughey is on screen, the shadows modeling the cut-glass cheekbones he acquired when he lost scary amounts of weight to play an AIDS patient in “The Dallas Buyer’s Club.” Rust Cohle’s thinness looks so unnatural that he could be an invalid here, too, perhaps a TB-afflicted Parisian opium eater of the decadent 1890s, especially in the present-day framing sequences in which Cohle sports shoulder-length limp hair and a zombie-pale complexion.
Although Rust says he doesn’t have “the constitution for suicide,” his behavior is so purposefully self-destructive, sucking on cigarettes with ferocious concentration, maintaining his alcoholism with preciously calibrated doses of Lone Star and whiskey. Rust siphons up toxic substances eagerly, lethal injections that are self-inflicted.
Cohl deceives a place of honor on a Ven diagram charting the overlapping areas of psychopathic misanthropy, deductive brilliance and idealistic dedication that characterize some of the most striking detective characters currently on television — Holmes, obviously, in both “Sherlock” and “Elementary,” but also, perhaps, at an even further extreme, Mads Mikkelsen’s poised and elegant Lector on the underrated “Hannibal.” (Hugh Dancy’s agitated Will Graham is the Watson figure on that show.)
Our hope is that these well-written and brilliantly played characters will have something worthwhile to furrow their brows over in future episodes. There have been quite a few serial killer masterminds under the bridge since “The Silence of Lambs,” and there is some cause for concern in the first episode about trudging down that road yet again. (In the one artfully posed example we’ve seen so far, the work of this killer looks a lot like Dr. Lector’s transgressive flower arrangements with human body parts.)
Points to all involved for courage, at the very least. “True Detective” is a bold title to try to live up to. So far, so good.