Movies and television see no shortage of twisted killers, finding ever more gruesome and brutal ways with which to dispatch their victims. And when the recently partnered detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) come across the body of a young woman named Dora Lange, bound and presented like an sculpture after a ritual killing, complete with antlers, you'd be forgiven if you thought you were watching a scene out of "Hannibal." And for a very brief, fleeting moment, the concern is raised that "True Detective"—as handsomely mounted and brilliantly cast as it is—will be nothing more than yet another serial killer drama where the cops track down the psycho. But writer Nic Pizzolato and director Cary Joji Fukunaga are less concerned with the case, than with the weight it bears on Rust and Martin.
Indeed, right from start, the concern isn't foremost about the murder, but about the people involved in solving the case. Set in 2012, "True Detective" utilizes a flashback structure, with Martin and a greatly unraveled Rust, who has been off the grid for eight years, questioned by two cops about the events in 1995—when the murder was seemingly solved—after a new body is discovered, bearing the same gruesome trademarks, as the killing 17 years earlier. "How could it be him, when we already got him in '95?" Rust asks the detectives—who have a vague suspicion he could be the killer given that some of the trademarks found on the new body weren't released to the public. "Then start asking the right fucking questions."
And it's through the questioning that allows the show to jump back to 1995 and track Martin and Rust as they investigate the case, and form an uneasy alliance. "True Detective" doesn't focus on suspects (yet), but instead on process, as Martin and Rust follow up on leads, and eventually realize that they have serial killer on their hands, when it becomes clear that, Marie Fontenot, a local girl who went missing five years earlier, may have also been a victim, when one of the totems founds at the crime scene for Dora, is also discovered at Marie's Aunt's home. A local preacher (Clarke Peters) also adds a bit of intrigue when he reveals that mutilated animals have been turning up too.
However, the real pleasure of "True Detective" isn't found in the case, but in Rust and Martin, who make a peculiar odd couple pairing. "Rust would pick a fight with the sky if he didn't like its shade of blue," Martin quips in 2012, though he's mostly protective about his former partner. Arriving under mysterious, yet to be revealed circumstances from Texas, Rust is a fish out of water in Erath, Louisiana ("might as well be living on the fucking moon") and still carrying the burden of a daughter who passed away. And it seems to inform a viciously bleak streak in him, highlighted in one of the episode's best scenes, in which he shares his bracing worldview.
"I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in human evolution. We became too self aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist, by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, a secretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody's nobody," Rust philosophizes. "I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal."
It's heavy shit, and Martin can barely tolerate it, though he deeply sympathizes with his pain. But he has to ask, how does Rust get out of bed in the morning? "I tell myself I bear witness, the real answer is that it's obviously my programming, and I lack the constitution for suicide."
Rust isn't exactly a bowl of sunshine, but he's a good cop and tries to be a good partner. When his arm is finally twisted into making an appearance at Martin's house for dinner to meet his wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), he shows up drunk, and Martin quickly arranges for a cop to call his house to give Rust an out. The domestic scene is clearly a painful memory for Rust, but when his exit arrives, he decides not take it, he chooses to sit down with Martin and his family, because he knows it's important for his partner. It's a lovely moment, and one that quickly informs how that bond has seemed to endure more than 17 years later.
Infused with a heavy air of sadness, and a tinge of something truly awful waiting on the horizon ("I can smell the psychosphere," Rust gravely intones), "True Detective" is also utterly compelling, presenting a world that seems to exist just outside of regular society. For Martin, it's forcing him to confront for the first time the depths of human depravity, while for Rust, the murder seems to only confirm his worst fears about the true nature of the universe. It's incredibly heavy stuff to be packaging into the box of a procedural, but this pilot episode is a slow burn knockout, not only showing the audience corners of the puzzle later to be solved, but also of the men involved, who are tasked with tracking a dark evil.
And as the leading pair, McConaughey and Harrelson are fantastic, with the former adding another notch in his belt to his recent career renaissance and the latter making his always exceptional character work look so damn easy. Even more, they manage to find a small amount of dark humor too, with Harrelson hitting the right pitch for Martin's exasperation at Rust's permanently dour state of mind, one likely not helped by his partner's eerie admission that, "I don't sleep, I just dream." But on the job, they find an easy rhythm, one that will likely serve them well as the go headlong into something that seems beyond rational understanding.
Shot with a tremendous attention to the rural flavor by Fukunaga, and with a literary at times script from Pizzolato, "True Detective" is potent and promising. It's a rich drama that weighs the consequences of loss, and already suggests that the show's tagline—"Touch darkness and darkness touches you back"—is one that will come to bear on the characters in this show. [A-]