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

Lady Macbeth.
Show Hide image

Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496