It’s interesting to note that True Detective Season 1 utilized The Handsome Family’s haunted ballad “Far From Any Road,” and despite the grisly imagery of the lyrics, there was a swing to the song; you could dance to it, if you had such an inclination. That seemed a fitting reflection of what Season 1 was: a horrific, absorbing police procedural given cinematic visual zest by the distinctly talented Cary Fukunaga and two furiously engaged, thoughtful, and perceptively physical lead performances. In comparison, Season 2 coopts Leonard Cohen‘s lugubrious “Nevermind” as its theme song, which is made up of a string of unsettling pronouncements (“I live among you/well-disguised”) held together by a minimal, percussive beat and some soulful flair by a cadre of back-up singers. And Cohen’s song is similarly reflective of the pickled, overtly brooding mood and sluggish tempo of True Detective Season 2, which centers on a quartet of modern-day Californians who are thrown into tumult when a crooked government official is found dead, with his eyes burned out by acid.
The murder, which isn’t fully seen until the end of the season premiere, “The Western Book of the Dead,” brings together three similarly brooding and wayward cops from separate law enforcement departments. This starts with Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), a detective working out of the Vinci district with deep, corrupt connections to both the Mayor’s office and to Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), a local, brutal gangster trying to go clean with his Lady Macbeth-esque wife (Kelly Reilly). Velcoro’s opening salvo includes drunkenly berating his son about the shoes he’s wearing and beating up a small-time journalist to protect Semyon, who once helped the detective exact some revenge on his wife’s attacker and rapist. Farrell is a strong, imposing performer and he makes an absurdly cynical character halfway believable, despite Nic Pizzolatto‘s inexplicable self-seriousness design for Velcoro and his attempts at redemption.
This might have been more believable if Rachel McAdams‘s Ani Bezzerides, Velcoro’s impending partner on the case, wasn’t also almost laughably overtly hardened. And of course, like Velcoro, part of Bezzerides’s design is of an entanglement of sex and vengeance, as she seems to be still working out her youth in the strange cult run by her father (David Morse) through her cold relationship with a colleague. Again, McAdams is a performer of visceral grace and natural charm, but the character she’s given feels thin and simplistic, a heroic cynic obsessed with the job and some bleak sense of morality. There’s no tang in the environs or the language, just a handsomely lensed melange of the worlds of Chinatown and Michael Mann‘s Thief. Justin Lin directs the episode with forceful competence, the best example of which is the sequence when Velcoro beats up the journalist, but the problem here is primarily Pizzolatto’s characterizations and the jungle of bland sexual hang-ups he’s devised here.
There’s always a chance that True Detective Season 2 will be a late bloomer but even if this will end up being just an agonizingly slow wind-up to a perfect pitch, the self-satisfied cynicism that plagues “The Western Book of the Dead” displays little of the ambition that Season 1 had, which was evident from the series premiere. There’s a general watchability to all of this, thanks largely to some seriously impactful editing and smart compositions, but the perspective is simply that everything is the worst. It’s main utility is brooding, damaged masculinity, typified by Taylor Kitsch‘s Paul Woodrugh, the motorcycle cop who needs viagra to have sex with his girlfriend and likes to ride his bike at night along winding mountain roads without his lights on. And yet there’s no recognition in the script or in Lin’s direction to suggest that either of them understand that they are dealing in archetypes here, a grisly outlook given almost no complexity. “We get the world that we deserve” says Velcoro in the trailers for True Detective Season 2, and you can feel that sickened, unconvincing attitude throughout the very first episode.
★★ Fair — Only for the dedicated