Growing up as a kid who listened to Heavy Metal music in the 90’s, I was extremely aware of the now infamous West Memphis Three case in Arkansas. For anyone living under a rock in the past two decades, the West Memphis Three are a trio of young men who were convicted of a triple homicide in May, 1993. The murders were initially reported to be of a satanic and ritualistic nature, and the boys convicted were targeted, reportedly, because of their affinity for the music of bands such as Metallica and Slayer. Their trial and life sentences were the source of much media coverage and controversy, as evidence piled up in support of the boys and their innocence, including new evidence as recent as 2007, which has led to their re-submitting their appeal and subsequent release from prison after nearly two decades.
Why do I mention this now famous trial? Perhaps it’s my extreme sensitivity to the case, but HBO’s newest hit drama, True Detective strongly reminds me of the trial, though I seem to be the only one making these connections. In True Detective, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson play Detectives “Rust” Cohle and Martin Hart respectively, who investigate a violent ritualistic murder in 1995 Louisiana. The show splits it’s time between the investigation itself and interviews in modern day of Cohle and Hart as it becomes apparent that the arrest following the murder might have been a wrongful one, as it seems a new murder has been committed that follows the original’s pattern.
Everything about True Detective is engaging and unique, especially the performances of it’s leads. Woody Harrelson is perfectly cast as Hart, the hard working family man who’s wife Maggie, portrayed by Michelle Monaghan, struggles with her husband’s time away from home. Hearing about the character it’s easy to picture how Harrelson plays Hart, and you can rest assured knowing that you’re 100% right, as he’s equal parts engrossing and hilarious in his ability to go from a mild temperament to imposing southern cop with an edge. But it’s his tumultuous relationship with Rust that provides the bulk of True Detective’s drama.
And it’s McConaughey who really shines in this show. Already a troubled soul in 1995, a man who struggles with the burden of an over abundance of intelligence combined with the fact that he lost his daughter at a young age, it is immediately apparent that this case puts him through the ringer and he comes out far worse for wear when we see him in the modern day interviews. A broken and battered older man, his impressive make-up job only further enhances his disheveled state of mind as he continuously knocks back alcohol and cigarettes while speaking to investigators.
Being a man at war with religion in the southern US is always going to be a problem, but it becomes much more than that for Rust as he investigates a case that clearly has a dark and potentially satanic motive, and his values are pit against those of Hart throughout the show’s first few episodes. His more humble and quiet, alone lifestyle is in stark contrast to Hart, and even being invited over to a family dinner causes friction between the two. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, even if it isn’t the most explosive relationship ever.
Which leads to one of show’s only potential problems thus far. Even though we are early in the show’s life, it’s hard not to notice the pace of True Detective, and just how painfully slow it tends to be. I don’t consider it the worst thing in the world, but each of the currently two aired episodes have packed in a ton of content in their hour run-times, to the point where the show seems to be moving at a crawl. Whether this will become a problem comes down to if the show pays off it’s extreme character development and delves much deeper into the murder investigation itself, as it has thus far served as a backdrop to the character drama, albeit an extremely entertaining one.
It’s clear that this case leads both Hard and Rust down extremely different paths, and things are sure to go wrong at some point, as the interviews in current day seem to be conducted by some new investigative team attempting to comb through even inch of the original case for clues to this new case they are working on, as well as calling into question the duo’s work at the time. Much of the best work of Harrelson and McConaughey is done in these segments away from each other, it gives them a chance to flesh out their characters separately and further adds to their chemistry when they’re brought on-screen together when the show focuses on the crime in 1995.
The supporting case is just as great as the leads, thankfully. Monaghan is impressive as Harts wife, working to keep him engaged with his family at home, including his children. Major Ken Quesada, played by Kevin Dunn, has been another bright spot as he leads the department in charge of the investigation, and thus is reported to by Hart and Cohle. Every character we’ve met so far has been engaging and adds to the tapestry that is the deep south setting of this show.
Each location and set is authentic and the show provides an interesting look at the south and it’s many characters. We’re early in this journey, but if you can handle the deliberately slow pace, True Detective adds another in the long line of successful and great shows from HBO.