Giving it lip: Matthew McConaughy and Woody Harrelson as Detectives Marty Hart and Rust Cohle
Show Hide image

Sky Atlantic’s True Detective: not as much cop as it thinks it is

Despite the laborious chronology, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughy, as the two detectives, will keep you watching.

True Detective
Sky Atlantic HD

The HBO series True Detective (Saturdays, 9pm), now screening on Sky Atlantic HD, is not half as clever as it thinks it is – though why it should care, I don’t know. After all, it seems to have duped the critics, who have declared it – and I’m not even paraphrasing – “the best television ever”.

Apparently these guys haven’t spotted the close attention the show pays to the dreary and misogynistic second law of American television, which states that any cop series in which the action takes place in Louisiana or elsewhere in the south must contain at least one sequence in which a cop visits a strip joint; duffs up an investigation-impeding redneck; accuses his wife of being a “ball-breaker” when she tentatively nags him about his hours; drinks too much because he is troubled by his “dark” past. (The first law of American television, by the way, has to do with New York, pretzels, New Balance trainers and a gloomy Central Park underpass – but let’s save that for another day.)

True Detective is an anthology series. There are eight parts and then it will end; any second season will involve new actors and a new storyline. It’s directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, who gave us the film of Jane Eyre starring Michael Fassbender, and it’s written by the novelist Nic Pizzolatto (Galveston). It looks excellent – several episodes down the line, I gather, we will get to see a tracking shot that lasts for six minutes – and it sounds . . . That’s the thing. It sounds complicated.

Pizzolatto has employed one of the most laborious time structures ever seen on television. The action takes place in 1995, in the days after the ritual murder of a young woman in a sugar cane field, but this is all in flashback. The story is, therefore, weirdly and sometimes confoundingly punctuated by police interviews that are being conducted in 2012 with the two detectives who led the original investigation. Combine this with the riddle-me-ree dialogue – when one character says to another, “I want you to stop talking this weird shit,” it’s hard not to sympathise – and what the viewer feels mostly is not terror, or even pity. It’s irritation.

What might keep you watching is Woody Harrelson’s performance as Detective Marty Hart and Matthew McConaughey’s as Detective Rust Cohle. Harrelson acts mostly with his lower lip, a ledge so pronounced that he could rest his badge on it if he wanted to. He’s self-deceiving and self-justifying and the lip comes into play, like a gun, whenever he is thwarted. McConaughey’s 1995 version of Cohle is waxy of complexion and stringy of neck and moves pedantically about the crime scene in the manner of an insurance clerk inspecting window locks (his nickname is “Taxman”, on account of the ledger he carries wherever he goes).

The 2012 version of Taxman comes with a ponytail, a drooping moustache and a drinking problem. This performance – the job, you gather, has ruined him – is horribly clichéd: the way he holds his cigarette between thumb and index finger; the way he sucks down his beer, eyes closed, as if it were a lake and he had been walking for five days through a dusty canyon to find it. But it’s mesmerising, too. Something about McConaughey’s bone structure speaks to this part: at times he looks half-dead. No wonder he has such a feeling for the corpse.

Ah, yes. The corpse. The (troublingly curvy) victim was posed naked with a set of antlers on her head, some satanic nonsense made of twigs nearby – which brings me to what might stop you watching. Given that we’re in good ol’ Louisiana, I was hardly expecting a fully Susan Faludi-approved character to burst through my screen (though True Blood has a strong woman at its heart). Even so, this is pitiful. These women! Marty’s wife is a martyr to his womanising and every other female is a prostitute, an obliging good-time girl, or both. The thought occurs that the victim is the quietest woman in this show only by a very small margin – at which point, the next episode starts to seem about as enticing as a solo visit to a Louisiana dive bar.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Beautiful and the damned: a spellbinding oral history of Hollywood

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein follows a specific tribe of people: the beautiful.

One day in LA, the showbiz tycoon David Geffen drove by the house that had belonged to Jack Warner, the co-founder of Warner Brothers. The gates were open, so he went in. “It was so grand and so Hollywood . . . It was an homage to an idea about the way people lived in Hollywood. I got caught up in the whole gestalt and I bought it.” Geffen then marvels that he paid $47m for the homage, while Jack had sold his whole studio for just $38m in 1956. You have to have a sense of irony.

From around 1920 there was a tribe in southern California, sometimes known as “the beautiful people”. In many cases, they were technical beauties (they appeared in dreamlets known as movies or had their photographs in magazines made of heavy, perfumed pages). Yet the true beauty talked about was a spiritual aspiration – a quest for romantic nobility, fragile elegance, or serene madness – that might offset the inner derangement, selfishness and comic vulgarity that so threatened their longing for godless class, or inscrutability. They lived within the frantic church known as Hollywood, a fierce cult or early form of terrorism (it hired intimidators, all of them called Oscar) that cherished the hopeless grail of beauty and sacrificed many lives in its pursuit.

Jean Stein is one of them; she admits as much in West of Eden, which seems to me the best book ever done on the terrifying social dysfunction of the beautiful people. Ms Stein is now 81. She is the daughter of Dr Jules Stein (1896-1981), the son of Lithuanian Jews, who became a celebrity ophthalmologist yet so loved music and show business that he founded the MCA agency – Music Corporation of America.

The marriage of medicine and ten-percenting is important to this book, and Jean Stein – who is clear-eyed, and knows where the bodies are buried – has the innate touch and scalpel smile of an expert autopsist. She does not quite write, but she composes absorbing, novelistic oral histories. In 1982 she did one on Edie Sedgwick, the Sixties model, junkie, sexpot and icon, a ghost long before her death. Now Stein delivers a calm Götterdämmerung that can be read as the fearsome annals of a haunted Hollywood, as well as an adroit response to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952), earlier proof of California’s soft spot for fallen angels.

West of Eden is selective and yet, by the end of its 334 pages, you feel that the light and the shadow have fallen on nearly every­one. There are just five subjects. First: Edward L Doheny, the oil tycoon who established the architecture of Los Angeles, and helped inspire There Will Be Blood. Then there are the Warners, but chiefly Jack, the youngest of four who outlived and betrayed his brothers, and who abandoned a nice Jewish wife for an adventuress and ended up being painted by Salvador Dalí and dreaded as “a character”. There is also Jane Garland, a schizophrenic child of great wealth who drifted around with various unofficial nurses and uncertain friends. Next is the teeming casebook called Jennifer Jones; and then the Steins themselves, which means Jules and Jean, and her two daughters by William vanden Heuvel, one of whom now publishes the weekly magazine the Nation.

In shaping these five windows, Stein has interviewed numerous tribe members, many of whom have memories, wounds and nightmares for which they are in therapy (or script development – the two forms are very alike). Her tone and manner are matter-of-fact, but she knows how wary those close to Eden are about trusting stories. Life is a competing set of fantasies, and given that lies have always been allowed in LA, falsehood itself, as a moral handicap, has come to mean little. Though all “true”, this book reads like a dream.

A short review cannot cover all five windows in detail, so let me fix on the one I know best: the glass or screen in which Jennifer Jones existed like a butterfly. Born in 1919 (Gore Vidal once told me she was three years older; gossip devours fact), she was the daughter of an Oklahoma showman who thought she would act – on screen, of course, but also always and everywhere. She married a young actor, Robert Walker, and they had two sons. Then in 1941 she was seen by the mogul David Selznick: he was moved by her and she was drawn upwards by her chance of stardom. Each abandoned a spouse and two sons. They became archetypes of misjudgement, though her mediocre acting never matched the skill or glow of other Selznick employees (such as Ingrid Bergman). They had a daughter, Mary Jennifer, who lived in rivalry with her mother and loathed her, and finally killed herself.

Jennifer, as Lauren Bacall reports, could be a little nutty. She and Selznick gave lavish Sunday parties: “Jennifer was busy doing her make-up and combing her hair and changing her outfit. She was kind of playing her part. She was always trying to be noticed, to have people really care about her and be there for her.”

This is not pretty stuff; maybe that is why these people were so desperate to be beautiful. Indulgence and neglect formed a damaging mixture that left bodies lining the roadside west of Eden. Lawyers and doctors catered to the stricken beauties. Shrinks played an especially devious role, though “shrink” was the wrong word; those hired to soothe mania in fact inflated their clients’ egos and dramatised their self-pity, the movie in which we all take part.

Hard to credit, often hard to stomach, this is a spellbinding record of that ancien régime. Whatever happened to the tribe? The members may be thinner on the ground now in southern California, but their ignoble nobility is everywhere.

David Thomson’s books include “Showman: the Life of David O Selznick” (André Deutsch) and “How to Watch a Movie” (Profile Books)

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein is published by Jonathan Cape (334pp, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war