McConaughey continues his run of great recent performances (Mud, Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street). He has pared himself down physically from his surf-hunky days courting Kate Hudson, but more than that he has pared down his craft, finding virtue in stillness. As he’s thinned out, he’s discovered new depths. Harrelson’s role is in some ways, the more difficult: the straight man, the narrative afterthought. But he, too, underplays neatly, in particular as Hart’s older self. Possibly the show’s most intriguing mystery so far is neither the 1995 killings nor the 2012 re-investigation, but the question of what exactly happened in 2002—an era we have not seen, and one that I do not expect we will—when Hart and Cohle suffered an undisclosed but irreparable rupture of their partnership.
Pizzolatto is cunning in his scattering of such narrative breadcrumbs, his teases of events yet to come. We first heard about “that big throwdown in the woods” in episode two, but have yet to witness it; the stunning final shot of episode three (itself approached, then retreated from, minutes earlier) promised a confrontation that still lies ahead.
Yet perhaps the greatest revelation of True Detective lies in its decision to have all eight episodes shot by the same director, Fukunaga (and, to a somewhat lesser degree, the same cinematographer, Adam Arkapaw). Customarily, top-tier shows—The Sopranos, The Wire, what have you—vary directors over the course of a season, and I’d occasionally been surprised at how little difference it seemed to make, episode to episode. What didn’t occur to me (though it should have) is that the multi-director format essentially requires the suppression of directorial style, a deliberate—and necessary—aiming for the lowest common denominator.
The genius of True Detective (again, somewhat obvious in retrospect) is that having a single director entails granting him license to direct. Fukunaga, moreover, is a talent on the rise: I still haven’t seen his 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre, but his 2009 debut feature, Sin Nombre, was a stunner. It is certainly no coincidence that True Detective is the only television show I can recall ever watching and thinking, over and over again, I wish I could see this in the theater. Fukunaga’s compositions are clean and meticulously balanced; his aerial shots and use of landscape superb (I loved the container ship passing in the background in episode three, with not a sliver of blue water in view); and the pyrotechnical panache of his six-minute, continuous-shot conclusion to episode four—well, the closest comparison that comes to mind is a similar bravura scene engineered by Alfonso Cuaron in Children of Men.
It is True Detective’s limited, eight-episode story arc—if there are future seasons, as seems likely, they will feature different stories and different casts—that enables the signing of talents such as McConaughey, Harrelson, and Fukunaga. (And that benefit is in addition to solving the hanging-around-one-season-too-many malady that has afflicted so many of television’s best shows.) Cinemax is evidently aiming for something similar with the Steven-Soderbergh-directed, Clive-Owen-starring miniseries The Knick later this year. It’s a format that could prove to be the next big step in the ongoing migration of talent from the large screen to the small.