Woody Harrelson, left, and Matthew McConaughey from the HBO series ‘True Detective.’
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Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson have at times been underestimated because of occasionally goofy off-screen behavior. But recent years have made their acting chops undeniable, whether it’s Harrelson in movies ranging from Rampart to Out of the Furnace to The Hunger Games films, or McConaughey in the likes of Magic Mike, Mud, and The Dallas Buyers Club, the last of which is expected to gain him an Oscar nomination. Their skills are also on considerable display in the new series True Detective, which premiered Sunday on HBO.
The eight-episode drama, written and created by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga, features Harrelson as Martin Hart and McConaughey as Rust Cohle, Louisiana State Police detectives who solved a bizarre 1995 murder but, in 2012, are being re-interviewed about the case and, it becomes clear, whether they caught the right killer.
The detectives are contrasts in style and attitude, with Hart the more stereotypical tough guy and Cohle deep into mind-bending contemplations of things like the “psychosphere.” In the early going, their conversations can accordingly ramble, especially when Cohle launches into a monologue. Viewers may readily identify with Hart’s plea that the detectives’ car become “a place of silent reflection.”
But once you settle into its rhythms, the series becomes addicting — and about something very different from the case that seems to drive the narrative. As much as we are following Hart and Cohle as they work their way through the poor and criminal underbellies of their world, we are drawn ever more into their personal dramas. By the fourth episode, we are looking at a story of personal disintegration, of internal demons that existed in these men long before this pivotal crime.
Harrelson and McConaughey are both fascinating as they show off the darkening sides of their characters — although, at least through those first four episodes, McConaughey dominates. The 2012 segments suggest that life has been much worse for Cohle than for Hart, but they also hint that Cohle still carries a tremendous amount of rage — and understands both himself and his situation better than Hart does. Hart still seems on some level to want to please his interrogators; Cohle really doesn’t care. And we, as viewers, watch in astonishment at the path each took during that old case.