In 'True Detective,' McConaughey Makes About-face

His Rustin Cohle may be the darkest character in TV history - quite a contrast to actor’s past pretty-boy roles.

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Good things started to happen to Matthew McConaughey as soon as he stopped taking off his shirt. Good roles, that is. The sexy slacker who spent too much screen time with too little clothes on, and amassed a body of work that amounted to the ultimate romantic comedy cliché, has transformed himself over the past two years into one of the most fascinating actors of his time. The turning point, from which he naturally slid into the varied roles he played in movies like “Bernie,” “Killer Joe” and “Mud,” was the character he played in Steven Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike.” That character, an aging stripper and the owner of the nightclub at the center of the plot, essentially sums up McConaughey’s filmography and takes it to the next stage.

And this is where McConaughey pulled out the heavy artillery: nuance and range that weren’t ever hinted at in his one-note repertoire up to then (with the exception, perhaps, of his signature line from Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused”: “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age”). McConaughey is making a big splash in two of this year’s most exciting Oscar-nominated films: “The Wolf of Wall Street,” in which he shows up for a mesmerizing lunch scene that includes humming, chest-thumping, cocktails and cocaine, and “Dallas Buyers Club,” in which he gives one of the most complex starring performances in recent memory, and which has already earned him a Golden Globe award. (The tight race between him and Leonardo DiCaprio is a testament to cinematic excellence. Rumors of the death of cinema were premature.)

Right to the guts

And yet, all of the above appears to be mere prelude to the most significant role of McConaughey’s career, in the HBO crime series “True Detective.” In the five episodes that have been shown so far, McConaughey gets right to the guts of Detective Rustin Cohle, who, together with his partner, Detective Martin Hart (a terrific Woody Harrelson), tries to solve the brutal murder of a prostitute in southern Louisiana in 1995. (Incidentally, along with “True Blood,” this is HBO’s second series that takes place in Louisiana and has the word “True” in the title – an attempt, perhaps, to depict the south, with its mystical aspects, unique lingo and Creole atmosphere, as a reflection of the collective American subconscious.) He also plays the same detective 17 years later, when the case is reopened.

McConaughey’s virtuosity and profound understanding of the character (McConaughey originally read for Harrelson’s role but insisted on a switch, arguing that he “knows how this guy thinks, acts and talks”) is evident in the three completely different sides of his character that he so vividly brings to life. The older Cohle – who starts drinking on Thursdays at precisely 12 noon, chain smokes, doesn’t cut his hair or shave, and doesn’t care if he lives or dies – adds onto the despair, nihilism and darkness of the younger Cohle all the scars that have accumulated in his tortured soul. To these two are added Cohle the secret agent who’s planted inside a racist motorcycle gang and reveals to us another side of his complicated personality, just like he does another side of his expanding acting range.

Cohle, a budding alcoholic and bereaved father whose marriage fell apart after his daughter’s death, is just about the darkest character in television history, and that includes Super Nanny. And considering that he’s the main protagonist of the story, “True Detective” easily wins the title of darkest show on the small screen.

In “True Detective,” his first work for television, creator Nic Pizzolatto, who taught literature at several universities and has one not-very-successful novel to his name, gives Cohle poetic monologues espousing an anti-humanist philosophy that scoffs at the human race and awaits its demise. “I’m thinking about my daughter now and about what she was spared,” says the detective when faced with the decomposing body of a woman who has been raped and murdered. “She’s dead and can’t feel anything anymore. Just think of the arrogance it takes to create a soul out of nothing and bring it into this world. My daughter spared me the sin of being a father.” Another time he urges humanity to stop reproducing in order to put a halt to the absurdity of life.

No hope, no choice

His nihilism derives from a Schopenhauer-type outlook that says we are motivated not by logic but by uncontrolled impulses. True, there needn’t be coordination between the ideology of a fictional character and the ideology of a piece of work; just look at all the pointless moralistic chatter that surrounded the release of “The Wolf of Wall Street” and the glorification of decadent brokers living the high life. But in “True Detective,” at least after the first few episodes, there really seems to be no hope and no choice, and all the paths on which our free will treads are just a litmus test for the wretchedness of the human race. The believer kills, the nihilist receives confirmation for his lack of faith and for the pointlessness of it all, and the repressed one continues to avoid dealing with his personal demons. The world goes on as usual.

In a certain sense, “True Detective” is the unruly southern sister of David Fincher’s movie “Se7en.” (Fincher is also the guy behind the most talked-about show of the week, “House of Cards,” which returned for its second season to huge fanfare.) Both are bleak, philosophical and pessimistic – not in the half-empty cup sense, but with an attitude that says there is no greater hidden purpose and makes no attempt to soften a dark detective story with religious elements.

As in “House of Cards,” the noir-ish slowness of the first act of “True Detective” gives way to high-octane tension in the second act (which began in Episode 4), and awaits the inevitable tragedy of the third act. (Let’s hope that this time Gwyneth Paltrow’s head won’t be delivered in a cardboard box from FedEx.) Another Fincher film that has been mentioned in this context is the under-appreciated “Zodiac,” about the San Francisco serial killer of young couples. Some have gone so far as to compare it to “Fight Club,” saying that the opposites represented by Harrelson and McConaughey’s characters are actually the ego and id of the same person, just like Taylor Durden.

No ‘CSI Louisiana’

But attempts like this to find the sensational twist in “True Detective” – and make no mistake, the Web is flooded with them – miss the real greatness of the show: an uncompromising work that peels away the false and addictive glamor of the various CSI franchises (HBO made a point of saying this show was not going to be “CSI Louisiana”); a work that for practically the first time in American television is applying the rules of the British miniseries, with a single creator-screenwriter (Pizzalatto, who wrote every word and approved every scene), a single director (Cary Fukunaga) and a departure from the usual conventions of dividing the plot into seasons and the number of episodes that comprise them. Pizzalatto has already announced that the next season will focus on a different story, with different characters and different actors – sort of like the British “Red Riding” trilogy and “Black Mirror,” in which the different episodes are linked by the creators’ specific touch.

And if we’ve come all the way from serial shirt-shedder Matthew McConaughey to film critic Andre Bazin’s auteur theory seeping into television, then we’re doing pretty well.

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in the HBO series 'True Detective.'Credit: AP