The case at the center of the new HBO drama "True Detective" is of the stuff that leaves the usual crime procedurals breathless. A young female prostitute is found drugged, beaten, raped and murdered, her naked body bound, adorned in painted symbols and oddly positioned with a crown of antlers atop her head.
But the details of her murder are perhaps the least of the show's fascinations. The interest "True Detective" takes in the case serves mainly to highlight the actions and attitudes it brings out of the two detectives tasked to investigate it: straight-arrow family man Martin "Marty" Hart (Woody Harrelson) and his new partner, a loner and rambler named Rust "Rusty" Cohle (Matthew McConaughey).
At first, "True Detective" looks like it has the makings of your typical pretentious, highbrow crime drama. There's a depressing setting (in this case, a decrepit Gulf town in Louisiana), a horrid crime that leads to a societal underworld and an opposites-attract type of police duo -- all of which has been done before. But stick around, because the shady characters and gloomy terrain Marty and Rusty cross are nothing compared to the demons they themselves are hosting. The inner workings of their psyches are the true mystery at hand.
The first hint that this is no ordinary cop drama is how it's all told, from 2012, with Martin and Rusty separately recounting the 1995 investigation under questioning from two younger cops (Tory Kittles and Michael Potts) who say they are re-opening the file for reasons that add another layer to the mystery. Marty is still well-dressed and well-composed, having moved on to PI work. Rusty looks to be in dire straits, ragged and wrinkled and beginning to live up to his name. It's clear there has been a falling-out since the case, but Marty and Rusty, who both look younger and equally clean-cut in the flashbacks, never really were buddy cops to begin with.
When investigating the murder, Marty prefers to go by the book – check the boxes so he can get home in time for dinner. Rusty – a recent import from a narcotics unit in Texas – takes a more obsessive approach, spending his nights in a furnitureless apartment, poring over textbooks about the psychology of serial killers. He also likes to use his cases to wax philosophical: criticizing religion, ruminating on the existential condition of man and insulting Marty's intelligence – both implicitly and explicitly – along the way. Marty questions Rusty's approach to detective work and to life in general, though he always retains an underlying respect of Rusty's abilities, which prove to be remarkable. As Marty puts it when Rusty makes one big break, "I mean, you're bonkers, but not on this."
In their retelling of events that occurred a decade and a half earlier, "True Detective" plays all sorts of narrative tricks in a case that's already confusing and meandering. Anchoring viewers is the characters leading them through the maze – you'll make your assumption about what archetypes Marty and Rusty are supposed to represent, but they'll soon reveal themselves to be far more complicated. Neither of them are saints, and "True Detective" is more a study of the sins committed by mystery-solvers in the name of the job – be it roughing up a local for playing dumb or cheating on a spouse – rather than the depravity of the criminals they chase.
"I can't say the job made me this way. More like me being this way made me right for the job," Rusty tells his questioners retrospectively. If said by lesser actors, lines like this (and there's plenty of verbal meditation on what it means to be a detective) would sound just plain silly. But McConaughey brings the conviction as well as the self-awareness to pull it off, and he truly shines in the role. You can't look away when he's on screen. Harrelson meanwhile, another down-home, big-talker type, manages to hold his own as the straight man to Rusty – that is until, as his performance slowly reveals, Marty's not so straight either.