True Detective, Rusty Cohle, and the use of an Extreme Character


With the recent absence of so many powerhouse shows lately I have found myself searching for that next cinematic high, and maybe even a little bit of show binge. If you are anything like me you will look for clues and signs from the film gods to guide you to your next path and cerebral cocktail of orgasmic dopamine synapse firings. I myself found those clues and signs early on in the year before January 12th, 2014 (pilot release of True Detective)

The clues were all there from the get go— a solemn detective drama, the innovative backing of HBO, a sexy/stylish trailer, and the amalgamation of two head strong edgy actors Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. I think it is safe to say that Mr. McConaughey’s transformation from hopeless Rom-Com douche to a serious name in Hollywood seems like its here to stay.

Now given that the clues above served as proper foreplay to the main transaction between viewer and producer doesn’t mean that these are full proof signs of a good film or T.V show. I am always quite sceptical when I see big names slapped together with raving reviews, 4 stars pegged to the posters with liberal abandonment and bold claims about the shows unique character; T.V success is never quite that simple. At first I thought it was going to be one of those show’s that put the thunder — creative promotion, big name stars, a compelling impression — before the lightning (the writing).

After viewing only the first 3 episodes (8 episodes in total) True Detective stands out as being something superior to its multiple parts and sequences. It’s one of those shows that make it unbearable to just watch one episode at a time every Sunday; I want to binge watch the shit out of it by grabbing a six pack of the finest LCBO Ale I can find in my wintery Canadian city whilst racking my brain around some of Detective Rusty Cohle’s (McConaughey) amazing philosophies on life and inner dialogue throughout the show.

I have seen some other reviews on this show so far and have talked to a few people who have casted the show negatively by calling the ominous atmosphere too “stifling” rather than intriguing, the dialogue being “too whiny and full of philosophy”. Well, the great thing about opinions is that we all have the freedom to give ours while we still live in a relatively free society (slowly eroding). So with that said I will not take this right for granted and give mine.

Lets first address the ominous atmosphere and the serious tone of the show for starters and then we will get to McConaughey’s character specifically.

First of all True Detective is an impressionistic show, it’s supposed to be stylish and ominous, the script clearly calls and begs for it. We’re rooted to reality, even as spiritual and rather religious elements populate the shows atmosphere — logic still governs its narrative. The fact for me is that the dark miasma and dense nature of the show works. The show takes place in poor, depressed Louisiana at its least charming — the kind of distressed and desperate place that would produce a sadistic serial killer.

As for the script being overwrought with “whiny and philosophical” dialogue I believe critics of this show are ignoring the context of this stylistic choice.

Yes, detective Rusty Cohle does indeed sound like that weird kid you knew back in high school that always wore black and never flashed a smile. However, I must say that it has been awhile since I have encountered a character quite like Rusty, and have been so enamoured with a role like this. We all have a little Rusty Cohle in us in some form or fashion. We have all drifted to those dark places in our minds and thoughts coming close to making some sense out of this existence. Sure one could view his dialogue as “depressing” but most of it actually makes sense. Life as you may well know isn’t all sunshine, unicorns and orgies. Life is wonderful, but the world is a shit hole.

Some of the dialogue that emerges from Cohle’s mouth:

[“we are things that labor under the illusion of having a self,” and such gems like “man-kind should walk hand-in-hand to extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal” and my personal favourite thus far “People….I have seen the finale of thousands of lives man. Young, old, each one was so sure of their realness, that their sensory experience constituted a unique individual; purpose, meaning, so certain that they were more than just a biological puppet. Truth wills out, everybody sees once the strings are cut off all down.”]

So in a nut shell yes, Rusty is indeed the equivalent of a College freshman who just discovered passages from Nietzshe or Leibniz and has burdened his parents with negativity during the Christmas holidays after first semester. Cohle is a philosophical pessimist (or realist) and he carries the idea that human beings are overly self-aware to the point that they don’t realize they are all the same. This however is a character.

These are the words that would come out of a social misfit whose young daughter perished, and who can barley tolerate going to his partners house for dinner. The great thing is that non of the other characters on the show speak or think this way. In other words, it’s not the worldview of the show — it’s just an aspect of the overall theme and production. Criticizing this show for making one of its characters extreme is like slamming Bret Easton Ellis as an insane writer because Patrick Bateman likes to kill hookers, boil their brains and eat them. It’s not constructive and misses the bigger picture. Just like in American Psycho the focus is not really supposed to be on the main character(s) but the commentary that the writer is trying to express about society.

So why is this show so intriguing and has been such a success thus far?

It’s all in the performances and plot. We can forget the previous, albeit obnoxious performances by McConaughey that splattered romcom after romcom for the past decade or so. The McConaughey of the present time is Mud-like: rough, gritty, humanistic, and a badass whose emaciated, steely hard presence makes the transition to Louisiana Detective that much smoother. He lives in a shit hole of an apartment with no furnishings except for a pile of books on the sex crimes of serial killers. Cohle is committed to the job but he is not a machine of perfection; there is a demon inside of him that threatens to take away his effectiveness as a detective at any moment, and that demon is a drink of the alcoholic variety.

Woody Harrelson, another diamond in the rough whose expedition from Hollywood playboy to an actor with some credence is a refreshing surprise in this show as well. His character of detective Hart is a counter to Cohle’s. They are essentially two sides of the same coin in that they both want what the other has out of life yet are trapped in their own existences and must play out their roles in life because they are bound by them. The dynamic between the two men have exceeded my expectations so far into the season as they have excellent chemistry on screen. Their characters work well together in that they are both suspicious as to how the other operates.

Overall, True Detective has come about at the perfect time between some of HBO’s,  AMC’s and even Netflix’s regular powerhouse drama’s until they start back up again. This show is perhaps televisions next great gift.

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