1.1: The Long Bright Dark
Another HBO winner arrives fully formed, it seems. Furnished with a script by Nic Pizzolatto (he has only a couple of episodes of the US version of The Killing to his name) and incarnated in stylish gloom by director Cary Fukunaga (the Mia Wasikowska Jane Eyre), it’s easy to see why big screen types Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson climbed aboard. This is the kind of perfectly judged, brooding, atmospheric, portentous and almost supernaturally menacing material that, used to excess, over stoked Hannibal’s boiler. In fact, this succeeds (so far) in nearly all the areas the TV Hannibal proved increasingly disappointing.
This is a hunt for a serial killer where it’s all about the hunters rather than the kills themselves (even though the style of murders is reminiscent of one of Hannibal’s weekly crimson sprees) and Pizzolatto takes full advantage of the opened-up, novelistic canvas to tell his tale with unhurried finesse. That’s what HBO patronage can offer (at the price of occasional lashings of nudity). I watched the first four episodes in one binge, perhaps not the most measured approach. The series pushes its way into the seat of one’s consciousness so inexorably that it really needs time to reflect on and savour. Tonally, the series it reminds me most of is Red Riding Trilogy; an unsolved mystery in which threads stretch over multiple timeframes into the present; the terrible odour of sinister goings-on and corruption in high places; and the suffocating effects of such malignancy on those attempting to bring order to the world.
Not that McConaughey’s Detective Rust Cohle has any belief in the essential beneficence of humanity going in. He wears his cerebral disenchantment with a barren universe on his sleeve, and is actively derisive of a part of the America where religious belief is integral to society, community, and family. His partner, Harrelson’s Martin Hart, doesn’t have the eviscerating intellect to extend his own analytical reach so far, but we gradually become aware of how his life is just as much of a battleground as Rust’s. Marty holds onto some vestige of hope even while he is destroying that which he cares for most. Rust merely sees himself as another terrible example of the species, one who happens to be well-tooled enough to deter even more terrible examples of the species.
Structured through 2012 interviews by Detectives Gilborough (Michael Potts, Brother Mouzone in The Wire) and Papania (Tory Kittles) with Rust (now no longer with the force and working in a part-time capacity, but spending three days of the week in a stupor) and Marty (now a private detective), the former partners offer takes both complementary and differing on each other and their investigation into a case Rust is convinced is the work of a serial killer (“She had antlers”). The actors just about pull off the visual conceit of posing as their 1995 versions. McCconaughey’s looking way healthier than he did in The Wolf of Wall Street, clearly having managed to pile back on a few pounds since Dallas Buyers Club, but his later incarnation is a desolate image of a man gone to seed; any attempts to stave off addiction and retain a facility for life and his abilities appear to have long-since departed. Marty is older, balder, but not much wiser; an indication of how age may mature us physically but it’s no guarantee of the accumulation of learning or insight. He does have a fair degree of insight into his nihilistic partner and recognition of his abilities, however, Rust’s loner status is shown to derive from personal tragedy (“Past a certain age, a man without a family can be a bad thing”, we are warned). A passing reference notes that they split up in 2002, ten years ago.
The interplay between McConaughey and Harrelson, friends in real life but reluctant accomplices here, is electric. The former’s is the naturally showier role, the Holmes to Harrelson’s Watson. But Watson carries around an awful lot of baggage. He is conducting an affair with a court stenographer (Alexandra Daddario) while his wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan, note perfect and perpetually underrated) is, for the time being, oblivious. Marty can’t get his partner to open up, but when he does he wishes he hadn’t; “I just want you to stop saying odd shit”. Rust’s existential dismay isn’t going to lift (“I don’t sleep, I just dream”), and we learn that in addition to his domestic traumas (he lost a child in a car accident, then his wife left) he subjected himself to the soul-destroying duties of a deep cover narcotics officer. Is Rust drinking Lone Star beer a cute reference to a previous lawman McConaughey played in the film of the same name?
Appropriately for a series where the murders are the backdrop and the effects on these detectives mentally and emotionally is key, the strongest scene in the first episode is Rust’s dinner invitation to Marty’s home. He turns up plastered, and Marty sobers him up enough to enable a few minutes at the family table before a rescue call comes through. But then Rust doesn’t go, finding himself able to open up to Maggie and helping himself to food, much to Marty’s mystification. Rust has made an unlikely connection.
As for the plot and overarching themes, the murder of a prostitute in ritualistic fashion is, on the face of it, a fairly bog premise. But the adornments (and I don’t mean the antlers) hold the key to making it seem fresh. The Christianity versus rational despair is perhaps on the heavy-handed side. Rust takes an extreme view due to his own experiences, one that is no doubt exacerbated by the fervour of the Louisiana setting, but in the wake of True Blood (which is even less subtle) it does feel like the makers are beating a horse that has already been chopped up and reformed as hamburgers. As the tale progresses there will be invocations to deadly dark deeds and Satanic rites (I must admit, the possibility of a supernatural element to the story didn’t occur to me, and I’m unconvinced that such readings will bear fruit), and what’s the betting Reverend Tuttle (Jay O. Sanders) is somewhere in the mix? Or perhaps this is an elaborate red herring, playing on exactly the kind of preconception an audience would have. The ending is a highly effective poser, that won’t find any clarification in the first half of the series at least. “How could it be him, when we already got him in ’95?” It’s a question that casts light on the tecs’ tack in focussing on the ways and means of Rust.