Let’s begin the review of True Detective season 2 (including and up to the finale) with a look at the acting and actors on the show.
There seems to be an awful lot of “140 character” type analysis and the same level of depth, to much of the critical observations of this season all summer long. Velcoro couldn’t even hide his phone in dirt this shallow. We’ve even done some of the Twitter joking too, as a way to decide what to make of an uneven, 80’s throwback, depressing bar on the outskirts of a shitty town season.
One important angle missing in much of the coverage of this show (and frankly, missing from a lot of TV and film reviews of today) is an ability to look at the actors and their work on a show in a serious and respectful way. This is a telling clue of the level of competency of too many bloggers/critics and overly editorialized reviews that has become the norm in the digital world.
Some of you are, as Vince Vaughn’s Frank would say “Fuckin’ dense”.
Colin Farrell is one of the finest actors of this or any generation before him. Like most old-fashioned, real men of quality, he’s utterly without glamour or trickery, and would rather play a career of shitbags than ever let his old Dublin mates and elders see him on a big (or small) screen with botox, lipgloss or visible powder (and some of the vanity projects that primping requires). While this observation is a surface analysis, and slightly shallow, it speaks to a larger point about his ethos and ethics: what you don’t know about him is that he’s actually one of the most smoldering, gorgeous men in the business. If he had prettied it up and played the dirty ol’ game we all know Hollywood is, we’d be looking at a real man in obscenely expensive blockbusters instead of what passes for male heroism in the land of petite boys who won’t even run for their 10 figure paychecks. We’ve been told we should want to look at Tom Cruise and his angry, relentless, chihuahua stare for two decades while men like Farrell have made peace with the off-cuts. And yet, unlike his True Detective character, this actor can probably sleep at night.
But film has become in some ways redundant, overly commercialized to the point that we ignore all the information about films except release dates and rely on simply our own guts for where to spend our discretionary money or time in our decreasing trips to the theater. Seeing Farrell on the small screen is both a rare treat for those who recognize what he possesses in those grunts and through all that sad sack stubble; and a gift to the industry who needs to spend 8.5 hours in a slow burning story with this real true actor in that captive medium of TV (on demand) to understand why he deserves to have money thrown at him to restore our silver screens to something worth getting out of bed for. He’s never been given his due, and at 39, there’s still time for Hollywood (or European film) to stop squandering this opportunity. Here’s someone who still has his original face that moves, and eyes that have always contained multitudes.
What Farrell does in True Detective is to initially blend in with a cast stacked full of known quantities and varying reputations, just as Velcoro maneuvers in the Vinci underworld and the police and political world barely shimmering above it. In a cast and a story where we struggled for weeks to learn many characters names, Ray becomes the moving target of the story, always the star, if always too-self effacing and depressed to have any idea that he’s a true blue, old fashioned hero of legend.
Farrell, an actor less famous, less celebrity these days than either of his main co-stars, takes the reigns of this puzzling, at times utterly mishmash-ed story one handed; he makes us care and understand, if nothing else, about the small scope of Ray’s arc: is he the dad of this poor awkward kid whom he loves? Did he kill his wife’s rapist or was he used like a weapon himself, and in so doing, compromised his very humanity? Why is his Ex SUCH a goddamn bitch to him? How dirty is Ray? Is he even a good or bad man? (His circa 1982 TV detective fashion is never in question, as he just looks RIGHT in it.) Played with symphonic delicacy in a difficult and sometimes hackneyed script, this actor makes this soul-challenging, guilt filled murder count: a potentially perfectly clean-handed moral murder of retribution for crime as bad as murder. Still, in the eyes of Ray, the story rings with the endless ache and deeply human meaning that murder really would have for a real person. In a season with a pretty damn high body count, including principal characters, Farrell manages to makes this one killing matter. This is the mark of quality storytelling in an age of Kurt Sutter cartoon thrill kills and torture porn as entertainment at 9:00 pm. What we got this summer was a return to the glory of the 70’s and 80’s TV and film. When not only censors, but also public standards, were high.
Coming off the unprecedented promise of the nearly flawless and delightfully riveting first 5 episodes of True Detective season 1, which did, unfortunately, fall apart somewhat in its third act, season two had to come back in a world of hype, memes, and snark, with a signed deal and everything else up in the air: story, leads, direction, and the threat of the sophomore slump. Media coverage (likely sponsored) hyped the shit out of it right after the end of the first season and into early 2015: casting news, reactions about every little leak, there seemed to be a manufactured anticipation. We read none of it. We wanted no part of it. Like film choices, we go on our gut in these parts, and wait until the menu is before us to make that all important choice. Going in cold is the only way these days.
The snarky attitude of mainstream and indie TV “critics” who mostly want to humble brag that they got advanced screener copies (for that’s about all they’ve got in their toolkit) made sure to tell the rest of us that this season was darker than season one. Now that would be near impossible, as many of us are still just a few steps up from clinical depression after seriously contemplating life, love and purpose through the haggard eyes of Rustin Cohle as played by good ol’ boy Matthew MacConaughey in his career and genre re-defining turn as the dark voice that keeps us up at three am. Is time a flat circle? We don’t know but we know that modernity SUCKS. It was a story that dealt with a thrill kill sex and murder cult whose victims were wayward, poor women and kids. It was beautiful, virtuoso writing and performance, and it was pitch black.
So if the second season was going to be so damn dark (as shouted from the know it alls from episode one) this meant that bodies were going to pile up, and, we might assume, most or all of the A-list names were going to get snuffed in gleefully dark style; that we’d be back in the now-everyday ready to go torture basements, spooky cabins and blinding bright salt flats used to sell cars in ads. This truly spoiled (if not spoilered) things. It put a pall on the season where this suggestion should have been left to simmer like the many cigarettes smoked (the last subversive act in a medium where violence is overdone) and anticipation and tension allowed to drip sweat into rings on expensive wood tables from the many, many whiskeys consumed during an average work day in this show.
Through it all, Farrell, with understated grace, fills the screen and shows himself to be the rarity that his talent, humility and true humanity would let us forget. It’s hard to rate the rest of the company against him, as he could, in another era or with a different sense of his own worth, be on stage with all the greats who have the knighthoods and the sterling reputations, even if their personal lives might have a file like one of the very bad men in Casper’s hard drive that California seems to be so rife with.
Ultimately, Farrell’s Det. Ray Velcoro and Rachel McAdams’ Det. Ani Bezzeridez are perfectly matched, their story arcs and their stronger-at-the-broken-places hearts making for truly enjoyable final three episodes. We get some rare intimacy in a crowded and never still season, a believable deep exhale of two characters who’ve kept their secrets held like a long, turn-blue breath that has been their lives, and bringing with it, some of the better dialogue of the season (delivered better than it ever can when there’s gunplay and too much time in cars, both necessary annoyances of cop stories.)
The always lovely and underrated McAdams really goes for it in this role as the lone female star in a macho landscape (including her creepy father who is underutilized here and underplayed by the great David Morse) and a backdrop of the usual male-oriented cock-fights, turf wars and power plays. She’s tiny, as female stars must be, but her toughness and strength, as well as her darkly powerful unsorted rage, is believable. Her backstory of the sometimes convenient idea of a ruptured innocence is, impressively, not a trope this time. It’s played with skill and depth. It comes out of her like trauma really does; it’s vomit and the cleansing, clear calm after the sick has been purged. She packs little knives everywhere in a way that is immediately endearing and exciting. Her ability to play as an actor at a higher level than the cardboard cutouts she’s often cast with in film allows her to shine, with the always generous and effortless Farrell giving her the floor, the spotlight, the top. It’s good stuff.
Vince Vaughn is the wild card here, an actor who’s been on our radar since his delightfully silly swagger in 1996’s Swingers, a film that must always be revisited and respected as a true indie film. A polarizing actor who has a signature (and enviable) brand of controlled cool that is exactly like Trent in Swingers, Vaughn is best known for a type of who-gives-a-fuck comedy that, frankly, has aged much better than many of his much more acclaimed counterparts. While laughing at Vaughn’s delivery as True Detective’s well-dressed, upwardly mobile mobster/entrepreneur Frank Semyon is often uncomfortable (as it usually involves really dirty deeds and violence) this is, after all, a brand of bad guy-anti-hero we’ve come to know and love in the era of Malcolm in the Middle’s dad as the awful (and creepily worshipped by sociapathic Millennials) Walter White. While Vaughn, the actor, is outgunned against Farrell, like everyone else here, this speaks more to Farrell’s prowess than to the inverse. Frank is a larger than life character as self-created players really are. In the end, Vaughn as Frank literally brings the big guns and lays them all out very neatly in a very satisfying way, and the 6’5″ inch actor cuts a fine figure through a storyline that needs its dark humour wherever it can get it.
Taking a cue from the title of this show, with any basic grasp of pop culture history one ought to know that this genre must be taken with a grain of salt, with the popcorn ready, with out the group think of social media today, and with a love of the lore of classic pulp fiction.
Yet, True Detective season one was groundbreaking, cinematic, risk taking, intellectual and philosophically challenging television. It was unexpected, truly unique and was a rich mystery that bore rewatching and deep readings. And it was a damn good yarn. It made the industry, and the audience, reassess the two lead actors who were well known film actors but who were both due for a fresh look; and led to a reassessment of them in a field that has choked itself and the true indie film world out of the game lately to allow a dominance of shlubs, beta-males and costumed superheroes, instead of real people in their more interesting shades of gray, the dominion of real actors.
True Detective season two is something very different than season one, and that’s ok. That’s right, and is the only way. It’s a throw back to a great, anti-intellectual, fun, exciting era of TV and storytelling where we kids never imagined, and were certainly never shown, torture beyond a little dangle over a balcony or an arm twist, or a gun pointed while the soundtrack crescendo-ed as we went to a commercial. When we could sleep at night and think about car chases. Where, sure enough, “lady cops” went undercover as hookers for the good of the investigation (and drooling audiences) but where we never had such a rewarding pay off as this time around. When motel rooms always meant a little hanky panky as a detour from the bad guys; and Simon & Simon always had each other’s backs. Season two is extremely violent at key times, but it’s budgeted out in a very un HBO way. It, too, is a good yarn. It’s nicely shot and it wrings some great tension out of the last 90 minutes that proves it was effective if you cared about these broken characters’ survival odds. It’s worth giving these lead actors a career reassessment and a chance to get dusty, dirty, dark and have some more fun up on the silver screen like the olden days. No more rom-coms for any of these actors, please. There are no shlubs, no caped crusaders, and only alpha men and women here in this drama. And guess what: all their faces are beautifully real and can still move, and move us with them.
By Jacqueline Howlett