True Detective is a great American horror story

HBO’s True Detective is as much a horror series as it is a police procedural

True Detective

“Like a lot of dreams, there’s a monster at the end of it…”

N.B. This feature contains MAJOR SPOILERS for True Detective: Season One.

Classifying a work as horror can be a touchy subject. Genre fans love to point to films like Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs and David Fincher’s Seven as examples of studios shying away from the horror label in an attempt to ensure critical and awards success. Until recently, it’s been harder to find examples of this in television, but over the past few years the lines have begun to blur. As networks have become more permissive regarding adult content and the quality of programming has improved, that great TV staple the cop show has arrived at the ‘psychological thriller’ threshold of its cinematic predecessors.

Kevin Williamson’s The Following, Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal and Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective are three examples of series treading the line between police procedural and horror. The Following tips into horror due to the garish way it approaches subject matter (Poe masks, the call is coming from inside the house, etc) and the genre pedigree of its creator, while Hannibal is so gloriously baroque and nightmarish that pretending that it isn’t horror seems to be a pointless exercise. Usefully for the purposes of classification, Fuller has consistently described the show as a horror. True Detective, however, stands a step or two apart.

At first glance, True Detective is, as its title suggests, a detective show, cut and dried. There’s none of the targeted guilty pleasures of HBO’s limited genre output like True Blood; this is very much pedigree programming. This is a successor to The Wire and, to a certain extent, The Sopranos in its combined study of character, profession and location. However, all these elements are explored in a manner that makes True Detective, superbly directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, as a horror and a Southern Gothic as much as it is a detective drama.

true-detective-4The series is constructed around a series of flashbacks, as detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) separately relate the story of how they caught a notorious serial killer in 1995, whose ritualistic murders and apparent ties to Satanism made the front pages. Now, somehow, he seems to be back, but why do these interviews seem like an investigation?

Rust is a bedraggled, alcoholic mess, clearly a victim of the darkness he has faced. Marty is genial and full of ‘life on the force’ wisdom, but we know that he’s divorced and there’s something a little forced about his manner. It soon becomes clear that the case these two investigated broke them down, and it’s the study of the effects of entering these dark places that gives True Detective its real power.

The consequences of the detective’s life at work on his or her (but generally his) time off the clock is a trope that we’re all very much familiar with, but True Detective’s structure drives it home with a great deal more force than we’re used to seeing. Over the eight episodes we see the 17 years that lead Rust and Marty to the awkward confessional of the internal investigation, moving at the deliberate pace we’ve come to expect from an HBO show.

Pizzolatto’s spin on the usual partner dynamic keeps things unpredictable, as Rust is brilliant, insightful, antisocial and unpredictable to the point of being dangerous. He’s haunted by years spent undercover and a lost child with his ex, with an apartment that’s almost completely bare and a social life that extends to hunting for clues in his off-work hours. He even has visions, as flocking birds form a swirling spiral. As fascinating as Rust is to watch, thanks to excellent writing and a stunning performance from McConaughey, Marty presents more of a surprise. He is your typical red-blooded American detective – or at least he seems to be. We want to see how Rust was broken, and the slow reveal of just how damaged Marty actually is under his cheery demeanour becomes just as compelling.

harrelsonThat combination of boozy philandering and family values is something that we’re so used to seeing on TV that it comes as a real shock when Marty’s world begins to crumble and Harrelson lets the darkness emerge. He’s the self-described steady one, but it’s clear that his not-particularly carefully arranged affair with court stenographer Lisa (Alexandra Daddario) will impact on his marriage to the seemingly perfect Maggie (the brilliant, if underused Michelle Monaghan) and the lives of their two young daughters, but Harrelson portrays the fury of a man who has lost control with tremendous power. To use the clichéd expression, the abyss has stared back into Marty and found a tremendous rage and potential for violence.

Whether or not this is due to the things he sees in his line of work is left up to the viewer to decide. Marty amiably chatters about the importance of letting off steam to the two men interviewing him, and we see what happens when he’s unable to turn that safety valve, as he terrifies Lisa by following her home and bursting into her apartment while she’s with a new lover. Is this a darkness that has always been there, or is it the psychic stain of his profession that he takes home with him? The latter idea is given weight by how his behaviour ends up affecting Maggie, who gets back at her cheating husband in the way she knows will hurt him most, and Audrey and Maisie, who begin to act out in disturbing ways as they approach adolescence. Everyone pays a heavy price, and this domestic psychological horror carries as much emotional resonance as the more lurid terrors that await Rust and Marty on the job.

Reggie Ledoux

“You ever wonder if you’re a bad man?” asks Marty. “No, I don’t wonder, Marty,” answers Rust. “World needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.” Rust’s general lack of faith in humanity and often comically depressing world view is what makes him better prepared than his partner when they venture into the swampy backwoods to find their killer in the season’s fifth and eighth episodes. In both these violent and horrifying encounters, Fukunaga creates nightmarish locations that resemble a dark fairy-tale version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

In the fifth episode, ‘The Secret Fate Of All Life,’ the pair hunt down their chief suspect Reggie Ledoux (Charles Halford) and his associate Dewall (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson). That shot of Ledoux pacing through the trees in a gas mask is pure monster horror, while the pair of killers neatly encapsulate nearly every redneck horror trope: serial killing, weapons-hoarding, meth-making, devil-worshipping child molesters. “I know what happens next,” murmurs Ledoux on his knees. “I’ve seen it my dream.” Ledoux is the American nightmare, pure and simple. No wonder Marty puts a bullet in his head.

true-detective-errolOf course, Ledoux is merely a precursor to the series’ real killer, the hunt for who occupies Rust’s mind until the present day. His obsession is what leads to his becoming a suspect; the real reason for Gilbough (Michael Potts) and Papania’s (Tory Kittles) enquiries. The storage unit the pair are so desperate to get into is Rust’s evidence locker, covered in pictures, photos, sketches and scrawled writing. ‘Yellow King’, ‘Scars’ and ‘Carcosa’ are the signs that point Rust and Marty to their true monster: Errol Childress. Beautifully played by Glenn Fleshler, Errol is a far more skin-crawling creature than Ledoux. Ledoux’s monstrosity seems easy to pin down because we’ve seen his kind before. The pieces of his puzzle fit together far more neatly. Errol, on the other hand, is more reptilian, as aspects of his personality seem to shift, keeping us constantly on edge.

His house is a perfectly detailed hoarder’s paradise, at once revolting and compelling. The overweight shirtless man addressing a corpse as “Daddy” passes a television playing North By Northwest and quickly adopts a thoroughly convincing James Mason impression to address his wife before hurling a frying pan at his dog. He seduces his partner while asking her to detail how her grandfather molested her, all the while cycling through accents. This is a dangerous predator, and the camera’s removal to a sign pointing to ‘Creole Nature Trail’ seems far from coincidental.

CarcosaBy the final showdown, Fukunaga and director of photography Adam Arkapaw tip Rust and Marty into a true dark fairy-tale climax, forcing Rust into the maze to find the minotaur. True Detective spends so much time examining the psychic damage endured by the two heroes that the nightmarish quality of the finale is fitting indeed. Rust doesn’t expect to survive, but his final act must be to slay the monster and bring some semblance of light and justice back to the world. With the necessity to venture into the villain’s own lair, constructed like the inside of his broken mind and echoing with the monster’s whispered taunts, it’s tempting to push beyond the clear Tobe Hooper influence and onto Wes Craven, as the talkative scarred pederast plays like a terrifyingly real Freddy Krueger figure.

Freddy and his boiler room hideout brings us neatly (or neatly enough) to True Detective’s third horror theme: the idea of institutional evil and society’s failure. Although we’re given a scene showing Errol at local school, gazing out at potential victims while at work to help establish the fact that he’s still at large, his crimes are part of a wider history of monstrous abuse. With ties to Sherriff Childress and Reverend Billy Lee Tuttle (Jay O Sanders), he’s part of the cult that has spent decades killing women and children in a truly gruesome, evil fashion, as evidenced by the videotape footage that produces such horrified reactions from those who watch it. The panic over ‘anti-Christian crimes’ whipped up by Tuttle is a neat front for his own devilish behaviour, as the conspiracy spreads through the police force, the local clergy and – thanks to his religious schools – the education system.

Throughout the series, Fukunaga and Arkapaw paint Louisiana as a state in a state of decay. Buildings both institutional and domestic have been left to fall apart as the rot seeps in. As the government abandons what it can no longer – or no longer cares to – look after, the bayous reach out to reclaim it. From the stark trees reaching out of the swamps like bony fingers to the neon-and-concrete sprawl of civilisation, it’s beautifully shot and makes the Alaska that Rust keeps referring to seem very far away indeed (it’s worth noting that Ami Canaan Mann covered similar territory in her solid 2011 film, Texas Killing Fields). “This place is like somebody’s memory of a town, and the memory is fading,” Rust opines. “It’s like there was never anything here but jungle.”

Rust uncovers a vital clue at the abandoned schoolhouse
Rust uncovers a vital clue at the abandoned schoolhouse

Perhaps the most vivid example of this seeping evil – and possibly the hardest image to shake – comes right at the close of True Detective’s previously mentioned fifth episode. As doubts begin to swirl about Rust’s behaviour and exactly what he’s been doing in the years since taking down Ledoux, we see the detective, who should be victorious after taking down two killers, enter the rank ruined schoolhouse. He moves through the rotting rooms and corridors in the dark to discover the same markings and stick sculptures that have haunted him since the beginning. As he lifts one up to the light the camera pulls away to reveal walls painted with trees, bringing home a truly primal fear. The dark woods aren’t some far away place where only the evil and the brave men go; they’re right here – and they always will be.

True Detective will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on 9 June. You can pre-order the Blu-ray for £35 at Amazon.co.uk.