True Detective? More Like False Detective

In 2011, Nicolas Winding Refn directed a low-budget crime thriller called Drive. It starred Ryan Gosling as a getaway driver-for-hire/sometime stuntman, featured notable TV actors like Bryan Cranston and Christina Hendricks in supporting roles, and turned Albert Brooks from a beloved comedian into a sinister villain. The crisp digital cinematography was dazzling; the soundtrack rocked. With an economy of weird dialogue and artfully restrained acting, the simple plot took on the depth and cadences of Greek tragedy. In fact, I’d say Drive is the most perfect treatment of the classical Greek tragedy plot structure in cinema history. Studio executives must have agreed with me (or the box office figures), because they OK’ed a follow-up for Refn to direct, with Gosling returning as star.

That film, Only God Forgives, was an unmitigated disaster.

On paper, it must have seemed like a sure thing. Transport Gosling and Refn to a new location; let Refn use moody electronic music again; photograph the whole thing in neatly composed digital shots; and use an economy of dialogue and realistic acting to tell a crime drama. Everything – every single thing – went wrong. Gosling’s stoic criminal persona utters something like twenty words in the whole movie. Mostly he stares at the camera, occasionally widening his eyes. Kristin Scott Thomas, to her credit, vamps up her Godfather-meets-Mama-Rose character as best she can, but Refn’s horrendous dialogue undercuts her professionalism. The plot is banal revenge thriller stuff, without the depth of feeling or tension found in Drive. The violence is bloody (as in Drive), but we have no sympathy for the characters, so we have no incentive to invest emotionally in this grimy story. In short, the cardinal sin of Only God Forgives is that it tries to be Drive, just set in Bangkok with a few new characters. By trying to recapture lightning in a bottle, Refn failed to let his second film be its own thing.

Plenty of filmmakers – Steven Spielberg, Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Wes Anderson, Kathryn Bigelow, etc. ­­– have used the same tropes over and over, yet find ways to create distinct projects each time. It is possible to reuse what works. Yet carbon copies in cinema and TV tend to fail (the infinite spinoffs of CSI notwithstanding). The case of Nicolas Winding Refn, as evidenced by Drive and Only God Forgives, is a unique case of copying the exact type of thriller film, with unsuccessful results.

The Refn Model pretty well explains what’s happened to HBO’s True Detective.

Season One of True Detective was a game-changer for cop shows. Showrunner Nic Pizzolatto dug into the rich tradition of weird fiction, the amorphous genre that sits somewhere between horror, speculative fiction, and mystery. Pizzolatto tipped his hat to the Southern Gothic genre, recycled the multiple-tellings-of-the-same-crime format that Akira Kurosawa created for Rashomon, and mined extensively (perhaps too much so) from philosophical tracts to lend the show some gravitas. The Southern backdrop, the collapsing industrial backgrounds, the occult villains, the gruesome crimes that elicited genuine pity for the victims – these were all conventions of pulp fiction, the crime magazines with names like, yes, True Detective, but combined in a deeply creative new way. Throw in career-best performances from Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConnaughey, and sharp cinematography by Adam Arkepaw, and you’ve got yourselves a palpable hit.

For me, the most bewitching thing about True Detective Season One was that it combined pulp material with high art. Child-killing cults of Devil worshippers aren’t exactly common (and thank God for that), but the utter depravity of True Detective’s villains made them stand out among TV nemeses. The philosophical arc gave the show weight, too. Harrelson’s philandering Marty learned that his old model of white American manhood – macho, slightly racist, casually misogynistic, cheating on the wife and then taking the kids to dance class, going to church, and assuming everything is fine – is based on bullshit. The world is a lot nastier, morally ambiguous, and unstable than the complacent Marty wanted to admit. McConnaughey’s Rust has seen the darkness in the world; he knows Harrelson bases his life on lies. Watching Rust grasp his way back from nihilism toward hope – rebuilding his America in the wake of tragedy – took on considerable resonance in our post-9/11 age. The show was about deconstruction followed by construction.

True Detective Season Two has no such resonance.

I understand that Pizzolatto has tried – really tried – to make Season Two different from Season One. He’s created a new storyline, set it in Los Angeles instead of rural Louisiana, and provided five protagonists – three detectives, two career criminals – instead of two. Yet the L.A. setting has been used many times, and well (see: Chinatown, L.A. Confidential). Another conspiracy set in L.A. is passé at this point.

I also understand that Pizzolatto tried to create new detectives with new moral dilemmas. Unfortunately, the characters are all clichés. Colin Farrell’s Velcoro is your typical bent cop who now finds his conscience. Vince Vaughn struggles to deliver laughably bad dialogue in the first two episodes as a (supposedly) ruthless mobster. Vaughn does a surprisingly convincing job in the role – the scene in Episode Three where he rips a man’s teeth out with pliers destroys any memory of Couples Retreat – but we’ve seen this type of Desperate Evil Everyman With Creative Weapons before (Exhibit A: Jack Nicholson, The Departed.) Taylor Kitsch, so good in last year’s The Normal Heart, is wooden in the first two episodes. He grows into his part by Episode Four, but his storyline as a closeted veteran somehow fails to ignite. Perhaps it’s because, again, Kitsch’s dialogue is laughably bad, and Pizzolatto is responsible. Rachel McAdams, who has shown tremendous energy in films like Morning Glory, fails to bring that same spark to Ani. McAdams’s flat affect in Episode One is off-putting. McAdams brings an impressive degree of physicality to action scenes in later episodes, but she never seems fully committed to the endeavor.

So we’ve gone through our caveats to the Refn Model. We’ve got new scenery and characters, except they’re not new, because they’re all clichés, rendered without the cliché-destroying deconstructionism that made Season One crackle. Now let’s tackle the Refn Model proper in regard to True Detective Season Two: Pizzolatto and his team reuse almost every design and plot choice from Season One, yet the show is a trainwreck.

Striking use of colors mixed with crisp digital photography? Check. Weird ambient soundtrack? Check. Evil cult that every politician in the state belongs to? Check. Missing young women? Check. Heavily armed drug dealers that cause an enormous shootout in Episode Four? Check. A crime seemingly solved in Episode Four, yet we learn really isn’t resolved in Episode Five?!? Big old check, folks. We’ve seen this before.

To round out the Refn Model, you need some uniquely bad innovations for the second go-around (e.g., Ryan Gosling’s infinite number of stares in Only God Forgives). Nic Pizzolatto et. al. don’t let us down; True Detective Season Two features many mistakes all its own.

  • Three episodes feature country singer Lera Lynn onscreen, crooning the most depressing songs in Western civilization. Each musical number drags on longer than necessary.
  • In Episodes One and Two, the dialogue is preposterous and needlessly ornate. In Episode Three, the dialogue gets a little better, but this improvement doesn’t carry over to Episode Four.
  • HOW MANY OVERHEAD SHOTS OF HIGHWAYS DO WE NEED WEEKLY?
  • Did they really need to stage Season Two’s giant gun battle in Episode Four, inviting deliberate and unsurpassable comparisons to Season One’s Episode-Four gun battle?
    • Did Pizzolatto et. al. really need to make this year’s shoot-out so absurdly violent, with so many civilian casualties? In the wake of so many shootings this year, Pizzolatto appears most insensitive.
  • There’s this moment in Episode Two when McAdams is in an office, being briefed by her superior. It’s a standard scene, nothing wrong with it, and then suddenly there’s this shot inserted of McAdams, arms folded, looking sideways askance. We linger on this inexplicable shot, then return to the main scene. WHAT IS GOING ON HERE? WHY ARE WE ALL STARING?

Speaking of staring, there’s this ridiculous scene in Episode One where Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell stare soulfully into each other’s eyes, while Lera Lynn croons away in the background. It’s the most absurd thing in a very bad hour of television. I immediately thought of the dinner table scene in Only God Forgives, where Gosling and Thomas stare at each other with all the emotions, to a similarly laughable effect. Why do filmmakers put such stake in atmospheric staring matches?

Now and then, Season Two of True Detective shows moments of inspiration or genuine poetry. Episode One ends with a stunning scene of Kitsch riding his motorcycle, his face lit in blue, his features blurring into obscurity as the bike accelerates. It’s like some of the best shots from David Lynch’s films. Similarly, Episode Three begins with a wonderfully Lynchian scene, a dream sequence in which Colin Farrell watches with increasing panic as a country singer lip-synchs to Conway Twitty’s “The Rose.” There are other occasional bright spots – a clever line, a well-composed image, or another scene with David Morse’s befuddled and sad New Age guru. Mostly, however, the viewer is subjected to scene upon scene of rehashed Season One material, atrocious dialogue, L.A. clichés, and borderline-incomprehensible plotting.

I’ll keep Drive and Season One of True Detective. You’d be wise to do the same, and avoid the monumental wreckage of Only God Forgives and True Detective Season Two.

Now let’s go stare at some quality TV.

Cover Photo Source: http://bit.ly/1e3Slvg, from True Detective S2, E1.

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