Mar 082016


While I expected to enjoy the second season of True Detective, considering the crime procedural is one of my favourite genres and despite hostile negative reactions, I was not prepared for just how excellent it was. I was taken, especially, with how essential the passing of time is to the narrative, and how it is as much as study of a crime-infested city as the human characters themselves. I thought I would explore this idea and discuss where True Detective Season 2 succeeds, and highlight two feature films – Zodiac and Marshland – that also make the location a core character. 

The much-maligned second season of True Detective had a fresh cast, and new directors. All eight episodes of Season 1 were written by series creator Nic Pizzolatto, and directed by Cary Fukanaga (Jane Eyre and Beasts of no Nation), making it a form of auteur television we haven’t seen often. The second season (also written by Pizzolatto) possesses the same full-rounded narrative arc to completely stand alone in the anthology, but with a committee of directors.

When California Highway Patrol officer and war veteran Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) discovers the body of a corrupt city manager, Ben Caspere, on the side of the highway, Vinci Police Department detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), and Ventura County Sheriff’s Office Criminal Investigation Division sergeant Antigone Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) are called in to work the case with Woodrugh. Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), a career criminal who has long been running drugs and prostitutes through his clubs (among many other enterprises) had invested with Caspere on a rail project in an attempt to legitimize his business. Caspere’s death results in the loss of a large amount of Semyon’s money, and he starts his own investigation he hopes will lead its recovery. He enlists the assistance of Velcoro, whose troubled past has left him in Semyon’s debt.

The plot, which many have criticised for being hard to follow, is a complex web that should satisfy thoughtful viewers who don’t approach the show as easily-digestible mid-week viewing fodder. It does require attention, and I found Pizzolatto’s most impressive skill was in the details that he left out, trusting the audience to piece the clues together. There are visual cues that link characters and develop arcs efficiently, and it reminded me at times of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice.

The disparate stories are often separated (and linked) by beautiful aerial shots of the city (LA), as if we are plucked out of one chapter, relocated, and then inserted into another. The sordid story starts to involve some of the city’s most powerful institutions; politicians, land developers and highest levels of law enforcement. With the city undergoing dramatic infrastructural development, it looks to be simultaneously rotting as it expands and evolves.

Faultless performances from the four central performers bring their damaged, complex characters to life. A story that can build empathy for rather unlikable individuals, and make you care about whether they survive or not, is worthy of praise. There a few nice people in this world. These characters are obviously essential to the story – and an emotional connection comes in surprising ways – but I was most attracted to Pizzolatto’s study of the corruption and moral decay of Vinci City (inspired by the notoriously corrupt town of Vernon, California).

Contracts for heavy-metal contaminated tracts of land, a two-decade year old robbery, a prostitution ring, and entrenched police corruption are all connected by Caspere’s murder and as our trio of investigators tug at all of the loose ends they uncover a network of scandal and sordid enterprise. Some films manage to capture that incredible complexity in their modest runtimes (see a couple of examples below), but this eight hours of television takes us deep into the labyrinth. The show’s scope in exploring this world is impressive. At one point Woodrugh finds himself escaping a gunfight through tunnels that make up the bowels of the city, while the surrounding hills are dotted with mansions built on crime and corruption. The series’ dramatic finale sees these characters forced to the outskirts of their world against their will.

While there are several stunning action sequences, including a street shootout to rival Michael Mann’s Heat that competes with the infamous single-take heist from ‘Season 1’, this show is every bit about the characters looking to redeem themselves. The case has a unique personal angle for all of the characters – a sexual harassment charge against Bezzerides, Woodrugh’s struggle with his sexuality, and Velcoro’s fight for the custody of his son – which add compelling drama, and affect their progress with the case. Cars are an important space for these people to open up and find trust, a space for sharing and finding unexpected guidance.

These characters are always on; always operating on some professional level, with rare moments to relax and let their guard down. Most of Semyon’s conversations with his wife Jordan (Kelly Reilly) are concerning what he must do to secure their future, while Bezzerides takes steps to repair her relationship with her father only after she is led to him through a case. Her first priority is the case. There is an ingrained competence and life-experience in these characters – their history is revealed patiently, as the story develops. Why they do things never needs to be explained. We get it. Being so efficient with character means that Pizzolatto can step back and ensure that we understand the world they are operating in.

While True Detective is, no doubt, inspired by real cases and locations, it is the work of fiction. Zodiac has a wealth of case records, individuals close to the investigation, and fascinating folklore to utilise as it chronicles San Francisco’s most notorious serial killer. David Fincher’s dedication to defining the city itself as a character included the incredible recreation of the 1960s through visual effects. Not many people are aware, it is near-impossible to tell, but an early aerial shot of the city is almost entirely CGI built. The Zodiac killer made headlines through letters sent to the San Francisco Chronicle, claiming a new murder if they didn’t obey their requests. Using the media to create paranoia; the Zodiac killer became a part of the San Francisco zeitgeist during this time – and Zodiac takes us into the lives of the journalists, investigators, and regular citizens (Robert Graysmith, portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal, was a cartoonist for the Chronicle) whose lives were changed forever in their attempts to solve the Zodiac riddle. The killer would make investigators vulnerable, and the characters portrayed by Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr. and Gyllenhaal find their year-spanning obsession consumes their lives. The entire city feared the Zodiac at this time, but they received no closure. The film does present strong evidence in one direction, but nothing has actually ever been proven.

Marshland is a 10 Goya award-winning Spanish detective-procedural that completely blew me away when I caught it by chance last year. Along with True Detective, this is one of the best additions to the genre since Zodiac. As I was watching Marshland, completely gripped and in awe of the craftsmanship, I was most reminded of Memories of Murder – Bong Joon-ho’s outstanding film about South Korea’s first documented serial killer. The lead actors provide serious star Spanish power a la McConaughey and Harrelson, portraying scarred, world-weary, increasingly desperate sleuths who are also ideologically opposed in post-Franco Spain. The period of the film, like those already discussed, is an essential element of its make-up. Set in a forgotten town on the Guadalquivir Marshes, the sense of isolation is palpable, and their pursuit of the killer taking them into unforgiving swampland, and sun-scorched desert – a wounded country healing slowly. The eeriness never lets up.

While the film is loaded with intrigue, the sprawling serial-murder case thrilling, it also has a potent sociopolitical subplot as civil unrest scorches the nation in the wake of Franco’s death. In a lawless environment, these two are relying on each other – but the case they share is about the only thing they have in common; their volatile personalities, and past alliances threaten their ability to trust one another. The writing here is very sharp, the direction of each scene perfectly judged – and in telling its story in a very efficient 100-minutes it juggles a lot of data through its editing, implying rather than telling and immersing us in a specific time and place through character development, and attention to the investigative process.

The crime procedural is a well-represented genre, especially on television, and there are a lot of mediocre entries. The intrigue, the twists and the use of the ordinary amateur detective make them thrilling and easily-digestible as novels, and we see a lot of adaptations of best-sellers. But, how many of them possess the contextual and thematic richness of the above examples, the depiction of a specific time and place that will still offer fascinating insight in years to come? They are few and far between. Interestingly, Disney have taken their animated visual ingenuity and adapted it to the crime procedural remarkably well in their outstanding new film, Zootopia. While plenty has been written about True Detective S1, it was the hugely-anticipated follow-up season that I felt needed some defending here. If you have written it off as a result of the loud online reactions, I urge you to give it a go.

By Andrew Buckle.