Note: I write regular album, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the title to go to the review.
After an even 20 seasons in the NHL, aging Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Smyth has announced his retirement and will play his final game in the league Saturday night against the Vancouver Canucks. Probably the team most’s iconic and popularly beloved player of its post-championship-dynasty period, Smyth hailed from Banff, Alberta, loved the Oilers growing up, and was legendarily hit by 1980s Oiler scoring star Glenn Anderson’s car while working at a hotel in his hometown (they were later teammates in one of Smyth’s first seasons and one of Anderson’s first). Even if he was not an Oiler for his entire career (he was painfully traded away in 2007, only to demand a trade back in 2011), Smyth is identified with the team and the city and its perceived work ethic and tenacity as no player has been since local product Mark Messier in the Cup years.
Following hard on the heels of the trading of fellow longtime Oilers (and 2006 Stanley Cup Final run principals) Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff, Smyth’s retirement cuts the final tether connecting the last great Oilers team and this motley current crew of massively talented but perenially disappointing young players. As steady and effective as Horcoff could be, as exciting as Hemsky’s sublime bursts of skill were, they were neither of them the folk hero that the man known as Smytty (hockey nicknames leave much to be desired) became locally. In a town with a self-image tied in with tough, dirty oil field labour and other related proletarian overtones, Smyth was the exemplar of on-ice spade work and grim, gutsy determination that has come to define not only Edmonton’s conception of “good” hockey but Canada’s as well. His defining on-ice moment for many fans came during the second round of the 2006 playoffs, when he lost three teeth to an errant puck but returned in the same game to set up Horcoff for a triple-overtime winner (the only decent video of the lost teeth incident features some tacky and uninformed Chris Pronger hate, but there you go). It’s a moment out of old-time, smash-mouth hockey lore; had the Oilers gone one win further that spring and won the Cup, the teeth would have ended up in the Hockey Hall of Fame (who knows, they still might, though their former owner may not).
Despite this lunchbucket reputation, Smyth was a tremendously skilled player as well, topping 400 goals and 850 points for his NHL career. He was a scorer in his heyday, a power play specialist (tied for most PP goals all-time for the Oilers, topping the list with one more against the Canucks would be a sweet finish) and not a puncher or grinder. The tenacity and tolerance for punishment that characterized his front-of-net office on the man advantage were often emphasized, but the excellent hand-eye coordination and anticipation to screen goalies or deflect shots or bang home loose pucks before defending opponents could beat him to it testified to a high level of skill and ability. If his hard-working rep brought him closer to his fans, his gifted talents separated him from and set him above them. Like all great hockey icons, Ryan Smyth could seem both larger-than-life and just like the men and women rooting for him from the stands or the barstools or the couches.
For my part, I well recall persistent Smytty in-jokes among myself and my Oiler fan friends. His habit of scoring shovel-in goals from in close to the net (this one from the 2006 Finals is an object lesson; how did it go in?) inspired the running joke that he scored every goal with his head like a soccer striker. His flowing hair likewise lead to a nickname that never shook itself from my head: Mullet in the Wind. Now, with Ryan Smyth’s career nearly at its end, adapting the lyrics of a famous Elton John musical elegy to the departed to include this phrase is indeed a tempting final tribute.
Monday’s night decisive election victory for Phillippe Couillard’s Quebec Liberals, who won enough seats to form a majority government at the expense of Pauline Marois’ Parti Québécois, is certainly important and epochal. If you follow the conventional wisdom of punditry, the result is also indicative of the death of separatism and the sound and heartening rejection of xenophobic siege mentality fear-mongering in Canadian electoral politics. Let’s not look away from analyses in the same spaces from not so long ago, however, viewing media mogul-turned-political candidate Pierre Karl Péladeau, the catalyst of revivified sovereignty and muscular, French Republic-style opportunistic targetting of ethnic and religious difference, as a qualified champion that the PQ could ride to victory at the polls and maybe in a future referendum on separation as well.
Separatism is not dead in Quebec, of course, although the PQ’s ownership of the brand is in some degree of doubt. More cynical observers might venture to opine that separatism was always a dead letter, a sort of long-dormant volcano whose imposing massif has been employed to extract the commitment to any number of safety precautions and protective measures from those living within its blast radius. Separation was always the nuclear option of Quebec political identity, a deterrent making the political, social, and corporate hegemons of Anglophone Canada reluctant to proscribe the province’s differences too aggressively. With support in Quebec no longer as vital to forming a federal government with the growth of the west (Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have done mostly without it), separatism is leverage for Quebec interests in the national sphere.
That’s one interpretation, and it seems to have increasingly been the one favoured by conflict-averse citizens in Quebec and the rest of Canada. Sovereignty arguments helped to strengthen linguistic and cultural protections in provincial legislation even as increased economic interdependence with the rest of Canada and the world continued bringing capitalist prosperity to Quebec, which no longer looked inward but outward. Separatism was a word not spoken; if the PQ still saw it as an ultimate goal, a coherent-enough social and philosophical ideology has been built up around it. State sovereignty was, perhaps, no longer as necessary due to a cultural sovereignty, a sovereignty of the collective Quebecois consciousness.
As the narrative is already telling us, the famous right-wing capitalist Péladeau (his Mussolini-admiring father founded Quebecor, corporate parent of the odious, reactionary tabloid froth of Sun Media) stated bluntly that he wanted Quebec to be a country and the air went out of the Parti Quebecois balloon like he had taken a pin to its skin. How ironic that it was a capitalist icon who brought to light the now-arcane-seeming tribal resentment so long sunk in darkness. Ironic why? Because the national and international consumer economy engagement and integration that business tycoons like Péladeau shepherded into independence in the province has created a social atmosphere uncomfortable with the idea of the kind of radical social and political upheaval heralded by separation.
If Canada has any sort of character feature that defines its people or (at least) its dominant institutions, it’s a fundamental unwillingness to avoid rocking the boat at all costs. Much of the Harper Conservatives’ success at mainstreaming its essentially unfriendly, un-neighbourly belief-system and the policies proceeding from it can be put down to the party machine’s effectiveness at selling themselves as the stable stewards of growth and profit while painting opposition parties’ challenges to its imperatives as near-revolutionary overthrows with dire consequences on economic stability. As conservative Canada has been defined by its ability to make money and by its promise of prosperity and security to its citizens, so has Quebec.
Language and “distinct culture” aside, Quebec is no outlier in global consumer capitalism but a willing and often very successful participant. The uncertainty attendent to the concept of separation from Canada (especially in relation to economic questions) is mostly seen as undesirable, just as the adjustments to government that would be a vital part of levelling the playing field in federal economic concerns are feared and villified by comfortably affluent suburban Conservative voters. This follows the lead of European nationalist movements to some extent, some of which are pursuing measured political means to achieve structured self-reliance while others accept levels of cultural distinction within historical political unions. What Quebec has found is what many formerly rigid nationalist movements have found, and what Canada as a whole has found: making money is more important than gaining self-determination over your cultural and political identity. They all may be wrong about this, but it’s what seems to be the overriding desire. And it’s what we can take out of the defeat of the Parti Quebecois in this election, if we’re looking at it in a certain light.
Captain Phillips (2013; Directed by Paul Greengrass)
The true-to-life story of the hijacking of an American container ship by Somali pirates and the taking of its captain as a hostage provides the fodder for this latest taut, hyper-realistic thriller from English director Paul Greengrass. Despite a clarity of vision, a high level of technical craftsmanship, and extremely effective lead performances, Captain Phillips is hamstrung by the diminished dramatic punch resulting from widespread knowledge of its ripped-from-the-headlines narrative. It also becomes a ham-handed exercise in United States Navy hagiography in its final hour, as the audience’s rooting interest is cynically directed into the camp of the military-industrial complex working to secure the titular hostage.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is the Vermont-based captain of the Maersk Alabama, a 17,000 ton container ship en route from the Port of Salalah in Oman to Mombasa, Kenya in 2009. Well aware of the dangers of pirate attacks in the vicinity of the Horn of Africa, Phillips’ fears prove to be prescient as his ship is pursued and eventually boarded by four young Somalian men armed with AK-47s under the command of Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi). Phillips and Muse test each other’s mettle in a contest of minds and wills which eventually leads to the pirates departing the Maersk Alabama on a lifeboat with $30,000 in cash and Phillips as a hostage in hopes of greater ransom rewards. Unfortunately for the pirates, the first successful hijacking of an American vessel since the early 19th century sets the superpower’s military might into ruthlessly efficient action. Muse is captured, his fellow pirates are shot dead by Navy SEAL snipers, and Phillips is freed to return to his family and pen a bestselling memoir of his experiences. Apologies for spoiling anything, but the public record tells us as much.
For an American public stung by the ambiguous Bush Administration misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan which the new President Barack Obama was quietly winding down early in his first term, the swift and successful resolution of this pocket crisis was a positive shot of morale for a nation whose self-image is never far from the battlefield, literal or figurative. Greengrass’ film, shot in the shaky-cam cinema verité style that the acclaimed director crafted into his trademark on the last two Matt Damon-featuring Jason Bourne movies and United 93, is similarly a cinematic caffeine jolt. Its stark, bloody-minded realism and finely-tuned technical construction should ratchet up its tension as it goes on, but as the inevitable, acknowledged endgame approaches, Captain Phillips becomes less tense, indeed at times kind of boring.
The strong naturalistic acting cannot be faulted for this curious tedium. Even though he’s never anything but recognizable, Hanks often vanishes into the credible ordeal of Phillips. He’s not performing, he’s being; his blubbering, near-helpless response on the Navy ship after being rescued interestingly shades the resourceful heroism he showed during the crisis with heavy emotional vulnerability. The naturalistic effect is amplified by surrounding him with Abdi and his non-professional-actor henchmen, who mostly do not speak English onscreen but never fail to convey every tone and emotion required, from danger to desperation to pain and even longing. Abdi in particular is an impressive natural with an unpredictable swagger that invests his thin frame with considerable menace.
What ultimately handcuffs Captain Phillips is the political ramifications that it can’t help but represent. The script by Billy Ray (who also penned the screenplay for The Hunger Games) prefaces Phillips’ voyage into deadly danger with a conversation between him and his wife (Catherine Keener) in its opening scenes. Speaking of their children’s career prospects, Phillips tells his wife that it’s an uncertain and ruthlessly competitive world in which their offspring are coming of age. Out at sea, he’s faced with a much harsher manifestation of those unforgiving forces at work in the global economy, but Ray’s script suggests not-so-subtly that it’s all connected in a long unbroken chain of haves and have-nots.
Muse shares with Phillips his endearingly simplistic materialistic dreams of America, of moving to New York and buying a car (Abdi himself moved from Somalia to Minneapolis and worked as a chauffeur). And he does get to America, but only to stand trial and while away the next few decades in an Indiana prison; the irony registers itself ever so briefly on Abdi’s face as he’s told officiously about his coming fate. When they first take over the ship, Phillips tries to placate the pirates by claiming that the Maersk Alabama is transporting food to Africans, but Muse scoffs at the West’s uneven, ineffective aid, which has neglected his homeland and left it a chaotic, violent feudal state divided between warlords. “We’re fisherman,” Muse insists to Phillips, but outside forces have depleted the stocks on which they rely for their subsistence and so they must cast their lines in murkier waters.
Captain Phillips can’t buy completely and effectively into its globalization critique angle, however. Greengrass and Ray sketch the social issue outline but never fill it in. What occupies the space instead is an authoritarian martial wet dream of three warships and a crack team of Navy SEALS pitilessly bringing down the blow of the American big stick onto frightened, desperate, destitute foreign teenagers with guns. The filmmakers are clearly aiming for a celebratory fist-pump from the audience when the masculine mastery of the U.S. of A is established beyond doubt, and the box office returns seem to confirm that they got it (Captain Phillips more than quadrupled its modest budget in worldwide box office takings).
True, what happens onscreen is what happened in the Indian Ocean in 2009, and fidelity to true events is a laudable mantra to Paul Greengrass in a way that it rarely is to Hollywood filmmakers. But there’s a grim, joyless march of inevitability towards the desired result that lessens the engagement. The ratcheted tension is never greater or more compelling than when the pirate skiffs are chasing down the container ship, but its rapid dissipation in the closing act could have been compensated for with a sympathetic turn. Had Greengrass turned his tightly-wound thriller into a tragedy in its final movement, it might have constituted a more compelling accomplishment. As it is, the hammer blow of the powerful against the powerless is carried on the level of an action climax. And it is neither fun, exciting, or enlightening in the final analysis.
Eagle vs Shark (2007; Directed by Taika Waititi)
A sort of more adult, even more deadpan New Zealandish Napoleon Dynamite, Eagle vs Shark is a rare, odd bird of a romantic comedy. The central couple of shy girl Lily (Loren Horsley) and awkward but obnoxiously overconfident nerd Jarrod (Jemaine Clement) either never really fall in love or stumble their way closer to it than they realize by the film’s conclusion. In truth, the affect of the whole film is so flattened (purposely and amusingly) that it’s quite hard to tell how they end up feeling about each other.
Both Lily and Jarrod are poorly-socialized loners in an unnamed New Zealand city (Wellington, probably, which is where it was partly shot). Lily moons over the mulleted video-game shopworker Jarrod from her post at a fast food counter. She learns of an animal dress-up party that he is hosting and invites herself, dressing as a shark; Jarrod is done up as an eagle, and lo and behold, that non-sequiturial title is explained. The party is a pretty hilariously sad affair, mostly attended by regulars of the gaming store and organized around a video fighting game competition that is intended to be an ego-stroking victory lap for Jarrod. Lily, whose gaming handle is “Dangerous Person” (an even funnier joke in one of those glorious Kiwi accents whose cadences are so well-adapted to deadpan humour), defeats all comers but stares distracted at Jarrod in the final showdown, allowing him to win handily. They kiss, have halting, brief sex in their costumes, and apparently become an item.
It soon becomes clear, however, that Jarrod is kind of an unreliable and self-involved idiot, though this only slightly dents Lily’s enthusiasm for him. He stands her up for a date and then excuses his actions by telling her that he needs to return to his hometown to kill a bully who tormented him in his youth. Perhaps not expecting Lily to believe that his revenge mission is real, he nonetheless accepts her offer of a ride to the town with her and her brother Damon (Joel Tobeck), who does bad impressions of over-quoted famous lines from movies the whole way there.
Lily becomes acquainted with Jarrod’s family in the town as he “trains” for his battle to the death and taunts his absent target. She pushes his withdrawn, wheelchair-bound father (Brian Sergent) around town, feigns interest in the unsuccessful line of self-designed athletic apparel constantly worn by his sister and her husband (Rachel House and Craig Hall), and plays with his barely-acknowledged daughter. She comes to like them almost more than she likes him, obsessed as he is with his sure-to-be-unfulfilling quest for revenge, which impresses her little. Even as he tries awkwardly to push her away, she clings on, preferring the newfound sense of familial closeness to her solitary life in the city. Lily also learns of a past family tragedy whose lasting trauma serves to explain many of the eccentricities and pathologies of this particular clan.
Waititi symbolically underscores the strange, uncertain fits and starts of Lily and Jarrod’s relationship with cute snatches of stop-motion animation featuring two anthropomorphic apples, set to the music of New Zealand indie-pop band the Phoenix Foundation. The message seems to be that lonely souls can find companionship even through adversity and misunderstandings and that sometimes what we call love is nothing more than a simple and non-passionate arrangement of mutual benefit. There’s a bittersweet note to this indie farce that gives it some measure of emotional integrity.
Considering its not-exactly-sterling lasting reputation, the Napoleon Dynamite comparison may not do this movie many favours. Certainly the kitschy lower-class production design of Eagle vs. Shark suggests that of the rural Idaho of Jared and Jerusha Hess’ quirky comedy hit. Big Sky country and Middle Earth down under turn out to have more in common that you might have guessed, though the latter’s famously spectacular scenery trumps the wide horizons of Idaho pretty handily even in a modestly-shot film like this. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments here for those whose sense of humour is tuned to the right frequency, and plenty of potential irritations for those who aren’t. Perhaps Eagle vs Shark‘s greatest service is to prevent anyone who watches it from making a bad movie-dialogue impression ever again. If this eccentric and often delightful New Zealand comedy accomplished nothing more than that, it could still be considered at least a modest success. As it is, it clears that bar by more than a little.
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009; Directed by Werner Herzog)
Difficult-to-pigeonhole German auteur Werner Herzog’s odd post-Katrina moral allegory is handcuffed by awkward attempts at reproducing crime genre elements and language, second-rate production values, and a mouthful of a title that needlessly references a movie it has basically nothing to do with. But it produces worthwhile bursts of off-the-wall inspiration, mostly due to Herzog’s favouring of tongue-in-cheek non-sequiturial tangents and his lead actor Nicolas Cage’s very peculiar performance as the titular corrupt drug-addict cop in a near-lawless post-disaster Big Easy.
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is fundamentally a B-movie. Herzog embraces the unsavoury pedigree that this classification implies, while Cage paints masterfully in the palette of the trashy lower-level cinematic crapfest that his post-Oscar-winning career has virtually single-handedly kept on life support. Cage is Terence McDonagh, a coke-snorting New Orleans detective who earned the titular rank reluctantly saving a prisoner from a flooded jailhouse after Hurricane Katrina. The choice to help the man afflicted him with lifelong chronic back pain, and Cage shuffles through the movie hunched over and just slightly physically twisted. He’s rather more morally twisted, ripping off his drugs from the evidence room, placing large bets on college football with a bookie (Brad Dourif), abusing his position to manipulate and bully the public to score more narcotics and other favours, and mooching off of his sort-of girlfriend, a prostitute named Frankie (Eva Mendes).
All of this aside, McDonagh is good police, as they might have said on The Wire. He investigates the brutal drug-trade-related murder of a family of Senegalese immigrants and bravely tilts at a powerful and seemingly untouchable drug lord called Big Fate (Xzibit) that is his chief suspect. McDonagh’s other entanglements begin to trespass onto the case, however, and he is soon juggling the demands from his bookie to pay his debts, from his police superiors to answer for his rogue procedures, and from the hired thugs of the cocksure son of a major developer whom he confronted for beating up on Frankie (a very funny Shea Whigham) that is now extorting money from him in revenge.
McDonagh is nasty stuff, make no mistake, even if screenwriter William Finkelstein gives him a humanizing scene or two with Frankie and a sterling silver spoon from his youth. A grimy and uncomfortable scene in which he steals a young clubbing couple’s drugs and forces the boy to watch as the girl has sex with him rises to the near-baroque heights of human monstrosity that Herzog delved into in his best-known fictional features, Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. But more often Herzog seems to be dabbling in hard-boiled material that is not his forte, especially when it comes to African-American urban culture, where the movie is on near-pantomime-like footing. One feels that this should be less slapdash in its depiction of human corruption and more fantasmagorically nightmarish in its imagination of an altered social reality.
Cage does better with this dodgy material (he has seen a lot of it, recently, after all). He’s in some roiling, torturous purgatory between the sort of unintentionally hilarious scenery-chewing that has made this once-acclaimed actor into internet meme fodder and a performance of genuine integrity and ambiguous verve. Indeed, Cage seems at times to be channeling the bearing, the left-field eccentricity, and the edgy unpredictably of his director, whose gnomic, inscrutable Bavarian-accented image has become more well-known than his often-challenging and transcendent films.
That said, The Bad Lieutenant is not much worth the effort, except for two sequences of trademarked head-scratching loopiness from Herzog. In the first and most bizarrely memorable, McDonagh hallucinates a pair of iguanas on a table during a surveillance stakeout. His colleagues dismiss his insistence that he can see them, but what might have been a throwaway drug joke becomes something infinitely stranger. Herzog cuts in a minute or more of shaky, out-of-focus close-ups of the lizards, their impassive reptilian visages, their scaly skin, and scores it with Johnny Adams’ 1968 version of “Release Me”. Animals have long fascinated Herzog, be they grizzly bears or squirrels or demented penguins. This film features dogs, an aquarium of marine life, and a roadkill alligator whose juvenile offspring gets a similar sympathetic close-up as it skulks away from an accident scene.
The iguanas return for a later cameo in the other deeply weird moment in the film: after a tense and bloody standoff between criminal belligerents ends in a bloodbath, McDonagh encourages Big Fate’s henchman to shoot one of their deceased rivals again because “His soul is still dancing.” This soul is made material in the form of a head-spinning breakdancer, whose rhythmic movements collapse into immobility with another gunshot. But first McDonagh watches this souls dance for a bit, a deranged but blissful smile on his face. Even in a mostly unremarkable piece like this, you can never wholly discount Werner Herzog, never turn away lest he pull out such an instance of inspired lunacy. What does it mean? Beats me. But that soul sure can dance.
True Detective – Season One (HBO; 2014)
One hesitates when faced with the task of writing about HBO’s buzzy bayou crime drama True Detective, which has already had so much digital ink spilled about it that finding new and worthwhile things to say (even at the end of its run) seems a total folly. Yet it’s a testament to the richness, depth, and tantalizing symbology that novelist Nic Pizzolatto’s neo-Southern Gothic twist on the hard-boiled serial murder mystery genre is imbued with that it could support such a weighty pile of discussion, speculation, praise, criticism, and internet meme-ry without collapsing. That the show’s narrative and even thematic conclusions proved more conventional and less fascinatingly obtuse than early episodes may have promised does not far reduce the compelling nature of the eight-episode ride True Detective provided to willing viewers.
It’s difficult to properly discuss either those narrative or thematic elements of True Detective without entering deeply into plot-spoiling detail, so like most things that are difficult, I won’t even try to do that. The first season of True Detective (future seasons will focus on different characters, locations, and cases, anthology-style) follows the forking paths of a 17-year murder investigation by two Louisiana State Criminal Investigation Division (CID) detectives. It begins in 1995 (although Pizzolatto is fond of philosophically opining that nothing ever begins and nothing ever ends). Detectives Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) are called out to a field beneath a sprawling old tree in rural Louisiana to process a bizarre and disturbing crime scene. An unidentified young woman is dead, her body arranged ritualistically facing the tree in a crouching position surrounded by cat’s-cradle-like twig latticework totems, a pair of stag antlers strapped to her head, stab wounds on her belly, and a spiral symbol drawn on her back.
The investigative effort to find the woman’s killer will cost the men nearly two decades, not to mention their jobs, Marty’s stable family life, Rust’s mental health, their sense of moral equilibrium, and quite nearly their lives. The sprawling rhizomatic case will encompass obscure symbols, revivalist preachers, billionaire politically-connected church leaders, drug-dealing biker gangs and meth cooks, missing children, Mardi Gras rituals, and a sinister “Yellow King” inhabiting a castle of nightmares called Carcosa.
Much of True Detective‘s appeal can be put down to the acclaimed duelling lead performances of Harrelson and McConaughey. Their names are literalizations of their contrasting natures. Marty Hart, though he affects the assumptions of mainstream masculinity redolent of the hero cop, is in fact governed by roiling emotions and desires that he is wholly out of touch with and poorly-equipped to negotiate. This leads him to make a total mess of his life, distancing himself from his intelligent wife and his daughters before fatally wounding his relationship to all of them with two unwise pleasure-seeking affairs with younger women. Though he affects the devil-may-care pose of the tough-as-nails alpha male, he does not have the stomach for the harsh realities of his job, and witnessing depraved treatment of children in particular leads him to look away from key evidence, make rash and costly decisions, and eventually leave the force entirely.
Hart clashes and sparks with Rust Cohle, his partner from Texas with a dark past of narcotics undercover work, a meticulous intellect and investigative eye for details and connections, and an aloof, philosophical, and misanthropic approach to his fellow human beings. His name suggests stubborn earthiness and flinty decay, and in the hands of a lesser actor (or writer) Rust Cohle could have been a crabby downer. But McConaughey, who won a Best Actor Oscar in the middle of True Detective‘s triumphal broadcast run, is blazing bright at the moment, and his trademarked Texan drawl sharpens even as it drifts into abstraction here. His quasi-academic expostulations on religious belief (which he deeply disdains) at the beginning of the third episode cap a series of ragged sage lectures that leave the less intellectually-curious Marty amusingly befuddled, in the mode of the car conversations meme linked above. These speeches drop away as the case becomes hotter and as Cohle becomes more disillusioned, but his oddball savant aura never loses the glow they imparted. Still, despite their opposing viewpoints and the considerable friction in their relationship, Hart and Cohle are eventually the only people who can understand (and simply stand) each other, and each needs the other to purge the stain on their lives that the unresolved case has left.
The earlier episodes of the serial are framed by the unreliable-narrator device of interviews conducted with off-the-force Hart and Cohle in 2012 by State detectives (Michael Potts and Tory Kittles) concerning the events of 1995 and later of 2002, when the partners fell out and Cohle quit the State CID. Cohle, who pursued the case with a particular obsessiveness, treats the cops and their leading questions (they believe he could be a suspect in what is now clearly a series of murders) with casual disdain, smoking and drinking in the interview room, carving human silhouettes from the empties, and engaging in the sort of philosophically nihilistic tangents that so frustrated his former partner. Not only Cohle but Hart and Hart’s ex-wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) all wilfully mislead the detectives with versions of events often drastically different than those shown in the scenes from the periods being discussed.
In addition to destabilizing the certainties of the narrative with this device, Pizzolatto dots his jagged plot with red herrings, unexpected (and unexpectable) turns, and tantalizing but never-expounded-upon symbols and literary references. The showcase clues and stings that tend to end episodes on fascinating highs often turn into dead ends or insignificant detours in the early minutes of the following installment. A twig latticework “devil’s trap” in the backyard playhouse of relatives of a long-missing girl connects her to the antler murder, but a graphic video later establishes the connection without a doubt; an illegal shakedown of a doughy sheriff (Michael Harney) on Marty’s boat yields nothing useful beyond another hint at the official cover-up that Cohle paranoidly suspects. Most notably, a tremendous, intense, and technically-masterful sequence (embedded at the end of the post) of an undercover heist that Cohle must escape with a biker gang hostage in order to make a big break in the case leads to a false tidy conclusion that directs the detectives away from the larger target for another 12 years.
Pizzolatto’s recurring but abtruse symbols cluster insistently around one key point of reference in particular: Robert W. Chambers’ 1895 short story collection The King in Yellow, a pioneering work of supernatural horror in American literature. Inspired by Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allen Poe and in turn inspiring H.P. Lovecraft’s similar but more developed Cthulhu Mythos, Chambers’ stories referenced the titular, shadowy, macabre king as well as a ficitional play about him whose subject matter and language drives anyone who reads it to madness. The fragments of the play that Chambers presents include references to the King in Yellow’s strange and sinister realm Carcosa (where “the shadows lengthen” and songs die) as well as an important snatch of dialogue: “You, sir, should unmask.” All of these details are dotted throughout True Detective like breadcrumbs, converging at the last in Cohle and Hart’s climactic face-off with the serial killer in his own dank Carcosa.
If these signs and symbols don’t wind up signifiying as much as imaginative fans hoped they might, then perhaps that was the point; the fault may not be in the stars, but in ourselves. What Lovecraft plucked from Chambers’ haunting sketches for his ever-expanding Cthulhu Mythos is the power of suggestion carried by eerie, vague symbols in the horror reader’s mind, the likelihood that whatever terrible reality they can imagine will be far more terrifying than any that a writer lays out for them. True Detective‘s plot becomes more contrived and more conventionally generic in both its implications and its results as it drags on; this is especially true of the Marty-Maggie-Rust triangle and the choice that sunders all three in 2002. Pizzolatto, for all of his literary references and novelistic social detail and lovely turns of phrase in dialogue, is hardly immune to the unsavoury, conventional sensationalist elements of the genre. His previous TV writing work was, after all, for AMC’s tonally similar but increasingly lamentable The Killing.
But True Detective is both a more entertaining and infinitely more artistically significant piece of television than the American adaptation of a moody Danish murder mystery whose unflattering example it works very hard not to emulate. This is not only down to the quality of the writing and performances, but stems from the manner in which practically everything presented onscreen through the eight-episode run becomes a symbol of a society not merely in decline but one actively denying a long and ongoing catastrophe. A thematic staple of the Southern Gothic genre, indeed perhaps its foundational metaphor, is that the fundamental moral degradation of the society of the American South is manifested as fresh corporeal degradations with deep symbolic roots to the lamentable past. A system of dehumanizing and exploitative slave labour is the foundation for a class structure based on aristocratic privilege, is defended in a failed rebellious war, and then is romanticized as noble by subsequent generations. Southern Gothic, from Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, represents the irruptions of the past’s disavowed horrors into a derelict present. Ghost stories are more plentiful in the South, you might say, because the ghosts there are more restless for being unburied.
As Alexis Madrigal’s Atlantic Monthly article on the landscapes of True Detective makes clear, however, the haunted past of Louisiana is not far away but terribly close and contemporary and immediate. The first season was directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga and shot by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, and their exquisite and striking composition of Louisiana’s locations and landscapes are the real revelation, both aesthetically and symbolically. The settings are alternately dilapidated and voided; homes and offices are either bursting, Borgesian archives overflowing with detritus or have become ruins by abandonment or due to their destruction by hurricanes; in either case, their function is dubious. Cohle calls the planet “all one ghetto… a giant gutter in outer space”, but he might as well have been talking about the blasted but rugged-beautiful scenery of the Pelican State and its profound and resonant existential swirl. The jawdropping epic tableau of the second episode’s final scene, seen to the left, is like a stark symbolist painting metaphorizing not only the Louisianan but the American condition: a ruined church with its roof caved in, its steeple and stained-glass window staring across wetlands towards the ominous industrial skyline of a petrochemical refinery.
The landscapes and settings of True Detective, its truest and greatest accomplishment, have a deeper signification linked to the recurring image of the spiral sign. The spiral becomes a motif in the dialogue too: “Time is a flat circle,” Cohle says, and it soon becomes clear that much of the show is constructed as a visionary literalization of that philosophical nugget. Cohle espies these spirals everywhere (he’s a synesthete, by the way, and sometimes has quasi-hallucinatory waking visions), but most notably as he and Hart approach the broken-down church and a murmuration of birds fleetingly coalesce into one. He sees another more vividly detailed spiral in the domed chamber of Carcosa before the King in Yellow attacks him, a galactic-cloud universe with shades of green. Indeed, Carcosa itself, a seeming Civil War-era stone fortress filled with creepy, poky twig sculptural patterns (an embodiment of the core of Southern Gothic), is just such a shape. Cohle navigates it in a rough spiral pattern until reaching the psychic and physical horror of its centre, and his escape and recovery from what occurs there dispels just enough of his enlightened pessimism to allow in glimmers of hope, like flickering star points in a black night sky.
The bridge between Carcosa’s climactic nadir of evil and the denouement’s pillowy landing of cold comfort is a vital series of panoramas of the various locations of the narrative’s horrors. These landscape shots seem almost to spiral back through time and space to the great tree in the isolated field where the girl with the antlers was found, but we travel to them through neither time nor space. They are the final thesis statement of True Detective‘s existential view of time as a flat circle, where places play host to traumas and then endure beyond the scope of those events, containing their memory but letting it fade with disaffection. It’s a circle that connects damaged cops and mothers and career criminals and crooked leaders and murder victims and lost girls and psychotic killers and all the rest of us frightened sentient mammals and offers no special regard for any. Our precious distinctions and desires and anxieties sink into the sprawling bayou of time and drown, leaving no intelligible sign of their presence in this everchanging gutter in outer space. Only in memory, the history in our heads, does anything linger, and that too is finite. Just as Lovecraft’s mythos suggested monstrous inhuman forces that operated heedless of human agency, so True Detective gestures to similar implications. That all of these profound meanings and dark hints intermix in the generic stew of True Detective speaks to the rare power and resonance of this rare television series.