“True Detective” vs. film noir

The series has been lauded for its heady dialogue, but its greatest feat may be its subversion of genre conventions

Topics: true detective, Yellow King, Carcosa, Rust Cohle, Matthew McConaughey,

"True Detective" vs. film noirWoody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in "True Detective" (Credit: HBO/Jim Bridges)
This piece originally appeared on Pajiba.

Pajiba Psychology Today recently published in-depth psychological profiles of the two lead characters in True Detective and I realized I was not alone in my interest and fascination with the two detectives. Actually, all the blog posts and rave reviews made that clear enough, but the Psychology Today piece made explicit that the characters are the real drive of the show. On the surface, the show seems fairly straightforward—we’re introduced to characters and plot elements that are staples of the mystery genre, without much obviously apparent deviation. With a closer look, however, I began to notice that some of these conventional elements were being systematically undermined very quietly and patiently, serving to create the growing strain of tension that has finally become the main narrative force of the series.

There are a few reliable character types we can expect to find in a detective drama and the writers of True Detective don’t shy away from any of those; it is a full-fledged genre piece. We’re shown the mismatched partnership of Hart and Cohle; the desk-pounding police chief turning red from yelling; the unwelcome task force who threaten to take the case away; the detective who can’t balance his work and home life; the haunted cop with a dark past; and, of course, the psycho-killer. None of those are new to the genre. True Detective, however, does something really interesting: It slowly erases the distinction between conventional types,.

The last four minutes of the third episode of True Detective consist of Matthew McConaughey delivering a monologue, a tension-building ramp-up to the revealing final shot of the jock-strap-clad, machete-wielding “monster.” The scene functions in a few different ways. First and foremost, it coherently follows the investigation by leading us to the next step — we’ve seen the detectives work up to classifying Reggie Ledoux as the prime suspect. The episode leaves us in suspense, with a prolonged look at the man we have every reason to believe is the killer, and we come away from it with that last haunting frame in mind.



What makes it so compelling, though, is that the words coming out of Detective Rust Cohle’s mouth are words that an audience would readily identify as those of a psychopath. No detective talks like this, no purveyor of justice talks about death so trivially. One can easily imagine these lines being uttered out in a later scene by the deranged lunatic in the police box confounding his interrogators.

Pay attention to what he’s saying and how he says it. The way McConaughey’s delivery runs shorter and shorter of breath, how his voice becomes harsher and more intense as he builds up to his point. Apart from the performance, listen to the music—a slow, pulsing tone that creeps in, intensifying in conjunction with McConaughey’s voice. The montage itself begins by following his narration—we see the photos of dead bodies when he mentions them, we are shown the “unmistakable relief” in their eyes as he claims “they welcomed” their deaths.

Then something strange happens. From one of those grisly photographs, we dissolve into a couple of step-pause shots set in the bar from earlier in the episode. We see Rust dancing with his blind date, who gives a big open-jawed smile, then through another dissolve we see Hart and his wife having a good time, smiling at each other despite the marital issues, holding each other close. Then we dissolve right back to another crime scene photo. (All the while, Cohle has been carving out a creepy little beer-can man he uses to illustrate his point.) Those ten seconds of dancing and joy are way out of place. It has nothing to do with the investigation or the suspect, which is what we’re led to think he’s talking about, and is in obvious contrast to the rest of the montage. The way the information is presented assaults the security of genre expectations.

McConaughey’s performance has garnered a lot of attention from critics, and rightly so, but what I find really captivating is the way in which the filmmakers exploit the inherent tension present in the murder mystery genre. Cohle’s character is presented to us as both a capable, intuitive detective and a psychotic nihilist—in other words, at face-value, the writing identifies him as the hero and the killer in equal parts—and the narrative increasingly intensifies this contradiction.

Consider the ways in which the writing suggests Cohle is someone an audience would typically identify as the story’s psychopath. In episode one, we learn a few things about him. His house, the barren, smoky dry-wall cave he inhabits, goes a long way to alienate him from the conventional idea an audience has of a detective. The tiny mirror on the wall he uses to stare into his eye (one eye at a time) is a nice touch. He carries around a ledger full of notes and details about grisly murders, illustrations of dead bodies, and most recently, occult symbols. Understandably, the viewer may not be thrown off by that, simply because as the story unfolds it justifies these deviations from convention. But that’s exactly my point: the filmmakers use these justifications to the clever purpose of distracting us from what we’re actually seeing. Consider a detective drama where they find the suspect’s basement, alongside a few dead flies and amateur photographs, a big black book full of occult symbols and descriptions of murder would fit the scene quite nicely and would even add a new layer of grotesque to the whole thing. And imagine if he kept his philosophical musings in the same book:

I think human consciousness, is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.

That’s no way for our crack detective to be speaking. Granted, cynicism is often attributed to detectives in fiction, from Philip Marlowe to Jake Gittes to Jimmy McNulty. Vacant stares and a healthy dose of misanthropy are not surprising finds. After all, they’ve seen horror and death and been so close to the darkest souls imaginable that it only makes sense for them to be off. In Cohle’s case, however, he’s got the darkest soul in any room he steps into, even in Ledoux’s compound. In the latest episode, Dewall, Ledoux’s cooking partner is put off by Cohle, telling him: “I can see your soul at the edges of your eyes. It’s corrosive, like acid…you got a demon, little man.”

Why is it that the bad guys are more spooked by Cohle than he is by them?

In episode two we learn Cohle suffers from chemically induced hallucinations from his days as an undercover narcotics agent. He loses his grip with reality. The visions we are shown include blurred light trails, scored with a pulsing, grinding electronic track. The light trails and pulsing music give a creeping sense of dread, it pulls us down into his psychosis, into the hellish subjective reality we can observe Cohle reacting to. He’s on his way to see a prostitute, to whom he goes on to say: “I’m police, I can do terrible things with impunity.”

As we’ve been taught by a century of detective fiction, prostitutes are a favorite for psycho-killers, and here we are with Detective Cohle watching him buy drugs and indirectly threaten one in a seedy motel room. The writers cleverly make this a key point in the investigation (his being tipped off about the bunny ranch) therefore turning our attention from what we’re actually seeing. Another vision we get is the flock of birds that morphs into the spiral we saw tattooed tattooed on the victim’s back, which the viewer now understands to be the killer’s trademark. The spiral from the crime scene and Cohle’s most intimate revelations are connected, entwined gracefully in a swirl of birds. The subjective forays into Cohle’s visions are linked with the mind of the killer in an observable way—we now identify that spiral with both the killer’s trademark and Cohle’s imbalance. That identification is key to our interest in Cohle as a protagonist and to elevating the tension in the show.

In episode four, we see Cohle as a bad guy in full regalia. He loses the shirt and tie for a leather vest and boots, he straps a belt around his arm and slides a needle into his vein, he takes lots and lots of drugs, and he joins the Iron Crusader biker gang in their heist operation. Okay, so all of these things are done in the pretense of furthering the investigation (more narrative justification) and it’s not the first time we’ve seen a cop go rogue, but given the previous indications, this episode furthers the impression that the information we’re receiving contradicts our understanding and expectations of the narrative. Inexplicably, in a detail that is not justified by the story, Cohle is the only crew member not dressed like a cop, further instigating the repeated motif of separating Cohle from images associated with his role as police. The dress-up aspect doesn’t make sense anyway, the bikers have long beards! Uniformed cops don’t look like that, this wouldn’t fool anyone (and didn’t for long). The whole scenario seems to serve the single function of explicitly showing us the discrepancies between what we see and what we think we know.

As of episode five, the show has forked into two narrative avenues: the investigation into Cohle as a suspect in the killings and Cohle’s personal investigation of what he discovered in 2002. The codes and indications in developing Cohle’s character aren’t just adding color; they have created a definite tension and pressure between parallel stories. The suspense derives from two perspectives and we, the audience, know that one of those avenues has to be a narrative misdirect—but which is it?

What we’re shown results in a complex relationship between the audience and Cohle. Spurred on by these impressionist techniques, i.e. toggling between objective reality and subjective delusions, we identify (and in effect, sympathize) with the character whose subjective reality is shared with us. By seeing Cohle’s visions with him, by experiencing the hallucinations and feeling the pulsating sounds, as opposed to merely hearing about them, we grow closer to him, we trust him since these aren’t ramblings but as observable and real to us as to him. We the audience can trust him (and Hart) because as he lies to the detectives about the firefight with Ledoux, we see the objective reality. The writers have covered both grounds here, subjective and objective, to ensure our trust in Cohle.

This is where the tension is coiled and what the pressure builds upon: our foundational trust and interest in our protagonist’s goals are in conflict with the information we receive from the narrative surface.

This all comes around when he goes from sounding like a psychopath to directly quoting one. In episode five, Cohle says: “Someone once told me time is a flat circle.” That someone, of course, is Reggie Ledoux, who said the same thing only about five minutes of screen time before we hear Cohle repeat it. What makes Rust Cohle so interesting is the tension created precisely by this relationship his character’s attributes have with that of the bonafide psychopath—whose death is another significant deviation from the norm. Usually, we can expect stories like this to really milk that psycho character, give him plenty of screen time to get under our skin (think Se7en or Silence of the Lambs), but this show resists that, leaving us only Rust Cohle’s and his beer-can men. Pizzolatto and company have done an excellent job coiling up the tension which has now become the force of the show, and they’ve done so in what is clearly a systematic way, subverting some of the tendencies we’ve learned to expect from this genre.

So which is it? Are all of these indications simply clues given from the get-go that this guy is trouble—or are they given only in favor of the fantastic narrative tension created between the two possible outcomes? Given the writers’ penchant to derail expectations, that question is impossible to answer. That’s not for me to speculate on, anyway. I’ll leave the investigating up to the True Detectives.

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