Sunday, July 13, 2014

True Detective: Coming to Catharsis

When it comes to television long-time readers know two things about me.  First and foremost, TV is generally a waste of time and the programming generally reflects and contributes to the downward spiral of mediocrity of the human mind. Second, I do not pay for television.  As far as the major networks and the cable/satellite corporate monopolies are concerned, if it ain't free I don't watch it, with the exception of our Netflix account, which is mostly for movies.

Naturally, I pay for great movies and even the rare great television series.  I own all nine seasons of the X-Files series, for example.  I own all six seasons of Lost.  I own the entire, original Outer Limits series. And so forth.  Since I am a free TV guy I don't get HBO but I am aware of its comparative success in the world of television. About a month ago, True Detective became available on Blu-ray.  I followed what the critics were saying about this program on my news apps as it was aired back earlier in the year.  Largely almost everybody thought it was awesome television - except for the snobby New York press.

Whatever.  The more I read about the series the more I wanted to see it.  I have now had time to watch its 8 one-hour episodes repeatedly.  It is easily the best fictional TV show I have seen in a very long time.  True Detective is superbly written, directed, acted, the music is excellent, every production detail is the best television can offer. This Blu-ray set offers brilliant high-definition images and excellent sound.

Jennifer and I watched the first three episodes in one-night stands but, while she was away one evening, I binge-watched the final five hours of the series in one sitting.  I simply could not stop watching it after the show, which starts off rather slowly, kicked into high gear.  Since then I have re-watched the whole thing with and without Jennifer, four times all total. We both think it is extraordinary.  Here are some of my reasons why.

The writing is terrific.  It is centered around two detectives investigating a ritual murder back in 1995, but told in flashback as they are both being interviewed about the case by two internal investigators in 2012.  The two major characters, Marty (played by Woody Harrelson) and Rust (Mathew McConaughey), are developed slowly over the first three hours.  We see their independent lives and discover the near constant tension between them as partners.  They do the job together, complimenting one another's skills, but they have almost nothing in common.

Rust is a self-proclaimed pessimist and has a number of long wonderful diatribes where he seems of be channeling Friedrich Nietzsche.  This naturally scores high points with me entertainment-wise as I am into Nietzsche, devoting my other blog completely to that great philosopher.  Rust's take on the hopelessness and, indeed, the mistake of human existence gives the narrative some depth and an added edge.

Marty, on the other hand, is much more straightforward.  He is seen as the far more stable and respectable of the two by those within the state police department.  He is a family man but we soon realize he is lost within his marriage (his wife, Maggie, is portrayed in an solid supporting role by Michelle Monaghan), becomes increasingly estranged from his children, and has difficulty staying out of at least a couple of infidelities.

On the case, however, these two are seasoned professionals and, as they begin to unravel the mystery of the murder, the facts lead to a rather nebulous but larger involvement of some people in high places within Louisiana politics.  But, I'm not going to spoil the story for those who haven't watched it. There are plenty of other things to talk about in True Detective.

The music was created and selected by T Bone Burnett (of O, Brother Where Art Thou fame, among other creations).  I wish there was a True Detective soundtrack available, but for a 8-hour movie it would take a boxed set to cover all the musical selections.  Suffice it to say you can check out the music here and that I found each tune to be perfect for each situation in the moment of the narrative.

Some of the music is original synthesized compositions by Burnett.  These are usually filling in otherwise silent moments or in establishing shots or in the many gorgeous areal shots of the Louisiana Gulf Coast.  During times when you see the sun setting or the endless marshlands and coastal waterways, the series felt like Apocalypse Now to me.  True Detective creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto references Apocalypse Now a couple of times in one of the audio commentaries included in the Blu-ray set.  So I felt vindicated in my comparison of how the series feels akin to that great film by Francis Ford Coppola.

True Detective, like all great films or productions, works on multiple levels simultaneously as it engages the viewer.  There is the high metaphysical level anchored by Rust's long, nihilistic ruminations.  There is the deeply emotional level of Marty and his marriage.  There is the conflict between the two partners as they nevertheless have to work together.  There is the story of the bizarre murder itself and how its tentacles slowly spread into a broader perspective as deeper details are investigated.  There is the new investigation about the old investigation, which allows for Marty and Rust to be separately interviewed and more or less tell most of the story in retrospect.

As the narrative unfolds we discover that Marty and Rust are, in fact, not being completely truthful about what happened in their investigation.  They are both telling the same lie about a very important event in the investigation.  That unexpected revelation was one reason for me to binge watch the final five episodes in one sitting.  I simply had to find out what the consequences of that mutual lie were, in addition to discovering the full implications of the murder.

In fact, it is that singular but critical lie (a cover story) that binds Marty and Rust even after they finally had a huge fistfight and a falling out around 2002 in the True Detective timeline.  Even though they refused to speak to one another again, they remained consistent about the lie, tightly covering each other. The lie is their fraternity and ultimately sets up the foundation for them to reconnect with one another in 2012 following their separate interviews by internal investigators.

The series shifts from being in the past-tense through most of the episodes into the present-tense at the end of episode six. The older versions of Marty and Rust end up reconciling to some degree because, as Rust puts it, they "have a debt to pay." They pick up their original investigation, which Rust never really let go of, and carry the series through its final two episodes without much reflection on their pasts.  Here they are two wounded warriors, bound by a fundamental deceit, working together to finish something that was left undone for far too long.

True Detective's production quality is on par with a great Hollywood movie.  It is often visually outstanding, especially in high-definition Blu-ray. One scene merits specific attention. The series is not really what you would call "action oriented." There are a few moments of intense action but generally this is a fine drama with fine character portrayal carrying most of the entertainment load.

In episode four, however, we are treated to a unique seven-minute sequence that is simply outstanding.  I love long continuous shots.  Alfred Hitchcock did an entire film, Rope (1948), in extended single-shot takes.  There is an incredibly lengthy single-shot sequence in Children of Man (2006) which makes that film something worth watching at least once.  In True Detective Rust goes undercover briefly to try to ascertain the whereabouts of a major suspect.  As part of his work he ends up as a member of an Aryan biker gang conducting a drug raid deep inside some black housing projects.

At one point the camera follows Rust nonstop through a myriad of action as the biker raid goes bad, gang fights, gun shots, helicopters overhead, an intercepting police raid, etc. This sequence without an edit is as action-packed and well choreographed as anything you might see in a major theater. It is certainly the action high point of the series and it is superbly executed; highly entertaining and a nice change-up from the otherwise character-driven story arch.

The series sounds heavy and indeed it is quite dark and brooding.  But part of what makes it such a well-written work is the fact that is chocked full of humor, usually cynical in nature.  Jennifer and I often laughed out loud and discussed afterwards some of the frequent, crisp one-liners during the course of the short series.  Several of the one-liners come from the difficult to impress Rust, but Marty gets his share in as well.  Here are some examples among many...

In episode 1, Marty makes some attempt to understand Rust's view of life while driving in their car.  After a heavy dose of materialistic nihilism Marty declares he has an idea of his own, playing off of Rust's words: "Let's make the car a place of silent reflection."

"Is sh!tting on any moment of human decency part of your job description?" Marty to Rust in episode 2.

"Not everybody wants to be alone beating off to murder manuals." Marty to Rust in episode 3.

"People incapable of guilt usually do have a good time."  Rust to Marty in episode 3, probably the best line in the series.

"Every time I think you hit the ceiling, you just keep raising the bar.  You are the Michael Jordan of being a son of a bitch." Marty to Rust in episode 4.

One of the bad guys, zoned out on crystal meth, philosophizes to Rust, of all people, in episode 5: "Time is a flat circle."  Rust replies: "What is that? Nietzsche?  Shut the f*ck up!"  It is as if he is suddenly listening to himself.

At the end of episode 6, modern day Marty meets modern day Rust for the first time in years.  Rust is now underemployed and bedraggled.  Rust offers to buy Marty a beer so they can catch up.  Then Rust pauses after looking at his beat-up truck, which he owned back in 1995. "Actually, why don't you buy me a beer..."

"Get on outta here, you're classing up the place." Rust to Maggie in episode 7.

Part of a conversation between Rust and Marty in episode 8 - Rust: "Sentient meat.  However illusionary our identities are, we craft those identities by making value judgments. Everybody judges all the time.  Now, you got a problem with that, you're living wrong."  Marty, after a pause: "What's scented meat?"

Throughout the course of this narrative there are several underlying themes explored.  But the one that I carry with me the most, indeed the one which serves as the basis for the conclusion of the short series, is what the show says about human catharsis. In episode 3 Rust summarizes the human need for religion as "the transfer of fear and loathing to an authoritarian vessel brings catharsis."  When asked in episode 5 about his superior reputation as an interrogator Rust replies to the internal investigators: "Everybody wants some kind of cathartic narrative; the guilty especially."

It turns out no one is more guilt-infested than Rust Cohle.  He carries a tremendous weight throughout the series, a weight that is heavier and more fundamental to him than his philosophy of hopelessness.  At the conclusion of the series, that weight is suddenly lifted - perhaps too suddenly for some New York critics.

But, I buy it because what those critics don't seem to understand is that Rust breaks down, cries to Marty, and experiences a transcending moment, a moment of catharsis. It is this moment that really makes the conclusion so satisfying for me personally.  He does not become a new person, it isn't that overwhelming, but he does take on a new awareness.

I won't try to define it precisely, you will have to watch the series for yourself.  You come to understand that True Detective is really not about the murder mystery at all.  It is a character study of two men coming to terms with life.  For Marty it is coming to terms with the slow passage of time. For Rust it is an instantaneous moment when suddenly darkness is not winning.  The fact there is any light at all is hopeful.  And the story ends on that sobering, grounded, yet inspiring note.

Which is a highly Nietzschean as it turns out. According to some essays in a great new book I am reading, Nietzsche On Art and Life, Nietzsche sought a balance where Art was not viewed as an escape from the suffering of life and life was not to be taken on its own terms without art.  Rather, out of the balance of both, out of an appreciation for both, a richer, active experience and affirmation of life is possible without minimizing the fundamental difficulties of human existence.

This is where Rust ends up.  His cathartic moment is not over the top.  It is not the transformation of Rust Cohle into some motivational speaker or salvation seeker inspired by the spirit of god.  It is genuine because he affirms life without giving in to the temptation to make his affirmation the basis for an easier life.  As Nietzsche teaches, life is no less hard just because you can see beauty in the world. But seeing beauty in the context of life's essential ugly qualities is precisely what it takes to live an authentic and relevantly fulfilled existence.

More about my new book on Nietzsche in a future post when I finish reading it.

True Detective's creator readily acknowledges the Nietzsche influence and references it in the audio commentary and special features included in the Blu-ray set.  The television show was nominated last week for 12 Emmy awards including (somewhat controversially) Best Dramatic Series.

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