True Detective Review: Episode 1 & 2 – Film Dispenser

Television January 21, 2014 Scott Phillips
Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every Fall.

“True Detective” Lives Up to the Hype

True Detective is a really, really slow burn of a crime show, and you really, really will not mind at all. Drenched in Southern gothic atmosphere and full of dread and foreboding, True Detective is a dark, gritty show that is as interested in the nature of evil and the darkness within all of us as it is with “whodunit”. That’s not to say there isn’t a compelling mystery at the center of the proceedings because there is. But, two episodes in, True Detective strives to dig deeper than the average crime procedural, and that makes it one of the most interesting shows on television.

In 1995, the body of Dora Lange is found in the backwoods of Louisiana. Naked, wearing a crown of antlers and surrounded by bizarre symbols and figures made of sticks and twigs, investigators Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) immediately realize this is not a garden-variety murder. The precision of the crime scene and lack of evidence tell Cohle two things, “This will happen again, and it’s happened before.”

Dora Lange was a prostitute who had recently begun attending a new church. She told her former husband that she had met “a king”. Did her search for salvation lead her to her murderer? Rumors of Satanism spread throughout the small community of Erath, Louisiana, and the Governor wants to form a task force to look into “anti-Christian” crimes. The crime may have spiritual overtones, but Cohle scoffs at the idea of Satanism.

True Detective is told largely in flashbacks. Cohle and Hart are being interviewed by law enforcement in the present about their 1995 murder investigation. Seventeen years has elapsed since Dora Lange was found in the woods, and the damage from a recent hurricane has destroyed the records of their investigation. Hart has moved on to a career in private security and investigations. Cohle hasn’t adjusted so well. He looks like a homeless derelict and can’t make it through the interview without drinking a few beers and taking some swigs from his flask. His eyes still burn with the same intensity, but the rest of him has faded away.

Through this narrative device, the audience gets a few pieces of tantalizing information and some intriguing foreshadowing. We know that Cohle and Hart arrested someone in 1995 for Dora Lange’s murder. We don’t know who, but we do know that someone is in prison for the crime. We also know that the two detectives had a falling out with one another in 2002, and never worked together again. And lastly, we know that a new body has been found in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and the crime scene is remarkably similar to the Lange murder. Is it a copycat? Or did Cohle and Hart put an innocent man in prison for 17 years, and Dora Lange’s killer is still out there plying his trade?

Crime fiction has long explored the effects of evil on those who fight it. How much time can you spend in the darkness before the darkness becomes a part of you? Each time you witness an atrocity or horrific crime against humanity do you lose a small piece of yourself? How long will it be until you lose yourself entirely? True Detective is consumed with these questions and is all the better for it.

Without the electrifying performance of Matthew McConaughey, True Detective would be stillborn. A former deep cover operative with a drug problem who lost his daughter in a tragic accident, Cohle burns with the need to find Dora Lange’s murderer, but his attraction to the darkness is abnormal. Spouting existential philosophy and filled with a general distrust of other people, Cohle could have been a cliché – yet another world-weary investigator with an obsession like those that have populated television and film for decades. But, McConaughey brings a sense of humanity to Cohle that transcends crime fiction tropes and gives us a central character we can’t stop watching.

It is also without question that Cohle is a suspect in the current murder. The two nameless detectives cut each other off when their questioning gets too aggressive, trying not to alert Cohle to their true intentions. But, Cohle’s wary gaze lets us know that he understands what it means to be on the other side of the interrogation table. Who better to commit a copycat murder than that weird former detective, Cohle? When he offered to interpret the photos of the current crime scene, the two men looked like they were ready to take a confession. Will True Detective really head in that direction? Did Cohle become so consumed with Dora Lange’s murder that he must now act it out to purge himself of the stain it left on him? I don’t know, but Cohle is not above suspicion at this point.

As with many crime dramas, the women in the cast play limited roles in the first two episodes. From crime victim to nagging wife to hottie mistress to prostitute, there isn’t a well-rounded female character to be found so far, but we still have the majority of the season ahead of us. (Although listening to a trailer park madam explaining the feminist realities of prostitution was one of the highlights of Episode 2.) It’s hard to believe they’d hire an actress of Michelle Monaghan’s capabilities to leave her in the thankless role of “detective’s wife”. I suspect she plays a role in the 2002 break-up of the two detectives.

Will True Detective maintain its momentum? Can the show possibly pay-off such an excellent premise? Avoid keeping your eyes solely on the destination when the journey is this enjoyable. I’ll be back next week to discuss Episode 3.

Scott Phillips

The Movie Isle

Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.

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