Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Few Words About "True Detective"

No time for a full-on post here, but I feel an obligation to mention something about the new HBO series True Detective, which is two episodes into its eight-episode first season.  The series was created by novelist Nic Pizzolatto, who wrote all eight episodes.  It is the story of two Louisiana State Police detectives who are attempting to solve a bizarre, occult-like murder in 1995.  They are played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, who each are doing work as good as any work they have done in their careers to date.

But that's not what makes the series of particular interest to Stephen King fans.  Nope, that would be the fact that all eight episodes were directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga.  You might not be familiar with that name.  Then again, you might recall that Fukunaga is allegedly going to be directing (and co-writing) two movies based on the novel It.

Prior to seeing these episodes of True Detective, I had not seen any of Fukunaga's other films.  I remembered that both Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre got very strong reviews; but I never actually saw either.  So while his hiring for a potential two-film version of It sounded like a good idea, it was the sort of thing that appealed to me primarily in a theoretical sense.

Having now seen Fukunaga in action, I can say this: the idea of a two-movie version of It being done in the style of these two episodes of True Detective is appealing to me in a massive way.  Fukunaga is, based on what I'm seeing, fairly masterful: with his actors, with his tone, with his camera setups, with his cinematography.  Some of this is undoubtedly also Pizzolatto, but Fukunaga is clearly the real frickin' deal, boys and girls.

Here is one of the striking images from the second episode:

It's arguably an intriguing image in its own right, but if you know the significance of the shape that flock of birds seems to be forming -- and know, also, the reason why it might be forming -- then things become much more compelling real quick.

Here is another image, one that perhaps requires a bit of setup:

Harrelson's character has been assigned to a very disturbing murder case involving a prostitute who was killed and then posed in a ritualistic fashion with antlers tied to her head.  Harrelson and McConaughey have been chasing leads, up to and including visiting a "bunny ranch" deep in the Louisiana woods; meanwhile, his character is having what one might charitably call marital difficulties, and arguments with McConaughey about same.

After the latest argument with his wife, Harrleson goes to his daughters' bedroom to call them to dinner.  They tromp out of the room, cute as buttons and happy as clams, and the detective spares a stray glance down at the floor, where he sees what they've been playing with:

My blood ran cold when I saw this.

Now, lest you misunderstand the import of what you're seeing, let me clarify that it doesn't represent any sort of plot twist, or any stupidity of that nature.  These girls aren't psychopaths; nobody has snuck in and arranged the dolls in that manner.  Instead, this is simply a reflection of how normalized the girls have become to the idea of sex as a (potentially) violent, degrading act.  It is such a part of the world that it is something to enact with dolls at playtime.  The girls undoubtedly have no real concept of the import of what they're doing; but whereas that fact might seem to make things better, I think there is an opposing argument that would indicate that it actually makes the simple fact of this playscene far worse.

The moment itself undoubtedly comes from Pizzolatto's screenplay, but Fukunaga's staging of it is key.  As Harrelson has approached the room, we've heard the girls playing and speaking in hushed tones.  Not abnormally hushed tones; simply the volume of kids playing a pretend scenario.  We hear one of them say something along the lines of "No, she doesn't have a daddy," and then Harrelson beckons them to the dinner table.  He begins to turn and depart the room, but we see him notice something out of the corner or his eye, and he turns, looks down, gives the something his full attention.  The camera pushes in slowly on the dolls, as he processes what he is seeing.  We process what he is seeing, too; but we also process the fact that he is processing it.  That might sound like a minor distinction.  It isn't.

Based on these two episodes alone, I'd have to say that True Detective -- if the remaining six follow suit -- is a new classic.  The concept, apparently, is for subsequent seasons to tell entirely different stories with new casts of characters.  It's a cool idea, and while part of me hopes Fukunaga comes back for the second season, most of me is watching this and hoping that It happens sooner, not later.

The idea of Pennywise being brought to life with the sort of eye and soul that seems to be Fukunaga's style is awfully damn appealing.


  1. Yikes, lost my original comment. Computer gremlins.

    Am I foolish for suggesting the way the dolls are staged not only serves a function for the scene / reasons you describe but also is a wink-wink to a certain preteen sewer gangbang underneath the Barrens?

    I definitely see the Crimson Sigil in the birds in the sky, there. Nice catch.

    The show looks and sounds pretty cool. I look forward to checking it out.

    1. I hadn't even considered that the birds were forming a Crimson King sigil -- they are forming a different pattern in the episode itself, but that still DOES like like the red eye, doesn't it?


    2. Evidently, the series is taking some inspiration from a 19th century short story collection by Robert Chambers called "The King in Yellow," which itself took some cues from Ambrose Bierce. "The King in Yellow" was (and again I use the word "evidently") a major influence on H.P. Lovecraft.

      I suspect this is all informing the show's philosophy moreso than its story, but six episodes in, it is proving to be a truly potent work of art. Interviews with Pizzolato remind me strongly of the sort of vibe Alan Moore puts off when he goes into his "the-world-IS-metaphysics" place. Which, for my money, is a good thing.

      Speaking of Moore, "The King in Yellow" -- yes, evidently (I say that because I'm basing my info on very cursory research) -- includes something about a lost city named Carcosa. You may recall that there is a character in "Neonomicon" named Johnny Carcosa.

      Pretty cool. I may have to track this Chambers collection down and investigate it further.

  2. I totally agree with you. If the remaining six are as wonderfully done as the first two, I'll become an addict!

    1. It's already too late for me; I've got the needle in my arm and I'm drooling on the floor.

  3. Coming back to this. Did you read this article in Entertainment Weekly about The Lawnmower Man/True Crime connection? Thought you might find it interesting. http://popwatch.ew.com/2014/03/02/true-detective-the-connection-with-stephen-kings-the-lawnmower-man-and-the-monster-at-dreams-end/

  4. lol I just noticed I said "True Crime". Sadly, True Crime (the Eastwood film) wasn't nearly as thrilling as True Detective. It was one of the few times I felt entirely letdown by an Eastwood film, but that's entirely different story. Glad you liked the EW though...

    1. Dude...you and I must BOTH be slipping, because I didn't even notice! Jeez.

      Was "True Crime" the one where he was a reporter? Yeah, I remember that one being pretty mediocre.

  5. Yes, that's it. That and Blood Work (he's an FBI Profiler) are two I sometimes confuse, but you nailed it.