Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Greg Dixon: Cast give murder mystery pedigree

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Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are well cast as detectives investigating a gruesome crime.
Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are well cast as detectives investigating a gruesome crime.

The suspicion that wicked men roam the bayou and backblocks of Louisiana oozes from the new drama True Detective (8.30pm, Tuesdays, SoHo) like blood from a fresh corpse. Men talk in hushed voices. Roads are deserted. The air looks unwell. And a ghastly sun seems to hang its head in shame at the evil that men do etc etc.

You get the idea: HBO's newest, most-hyped show is yet another of those highly stylised Southern Gothic nightmares that America's cable channels now seem to specialise in, from American Horror Story to The Walking Dead to Treme to Hatfields & McCoys.

But it would be fair to say that True Detective thinks more of itself than being just another horror story from the Deep South. One suspects the show's creator and writer, Nic Pizzolatto sees himself as part of a much older and more impressive tradition, that his eight-part mini series is more The Brothers Karamazov (think lengthy meditations on God, morality, free will) than Banshee (Antony Starr trying to look hot while fighting with his shirt off).

The first episode of True Detective opened in the present but quickly flashed back to the mid-1990s when a woman's body had been found near a burned cornfield. She was naked, on her knees and tied. There was a weird symbol painted on her back and she had been crowned with deer antlers. Around her were odd little teepee things made from twigs and twine. Creepy. Detectives Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rustin "Rust" Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) - teamed for just three months - soon discovered the dead woman was a hooker called Dora Kelly Lange and Cohle suspected the ritualistic nature of the killing meant the murderer had killed before or would kill again.

In the flashes forward Hart and Cohle, now long since out of the Louisiana State Police, were being interviewed separately (they've long since fallen out) about the case by cops investigating a recent murder with similar hallmarks. There are possible links to a missing child who was never found.

These are the facts so far. But True Detective isn't just about the facts (which look like they will only get murkier as the story unfolds). Events are also a coat-hanger for the discursive dialogue as Cohle meditates on God, morality, free will etc etc.

The following is typical: "I think human consciousness was a tragic mistake in evolution," he mutters to Hart at one point.

"We became too self-aware. Nature has created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that shouldn't exist by natural law."

Which is either pretentious shit or philosophically provocative. You choose.

Hart, a more typical cop, tells Cohle to shut the hell up a lot, which means a few amusing exchanges: "I consider myself a realist," Cohle mutters, "but in philosophical terms I'm what's called a pessimist."

"Um, okay, what's that mean?" mutters Hart.

"It means I'm bad at parties."

"Let me tell you, you ain't great outside parties either."

It almost goes without saying that the cast of True Detective is the attraction here.

Harrelson is an actor of impressive range and subtlety. McConaughey, when he's not starring in bloody awful romantic comedies, certainly makes you sit up and listen (and he was gonged at the Globes this week).

And Pizzolatto has written a wordy script that gives these two a lot of set-piece opportunities to show us their acting chops.

Which means it's all very impressive - in parts. But the sum? Well call me a realist, or maybe even a pessimist, but this might turn out to be more sizzle than sausage.

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Canvas deputy editor Greg Dixon has spent more than 20 years working as a journalist for the New Zealand Herald and North & South and Metro magazines. He has been deputy editor of Canvas since 2008 and has won awards for his writing and editing, but would have preferred a pay rise.

Read more by Greg Dixon

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