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The Flat Circle: How 'True Detective' Brilliantly Employs Genre Conventions to Misdirect Its Audience

By Pedro Cortes | Think Pieces | February 21, 2014 | Comments ()


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Psychology Today recently published in-depth psychological profiles of the two lead characters in True Detective and I realized I was not alone in my interest and fascination with the two detectives. Actually, all the blog posts and rave reviews made that clear enough, but the Psychology Today piece made explicit that the characters are the real drive of the show. On the surface, the show seems fairly straightforward—we’re introduced to characters and plot elements that are staples of the mystery genre, without much obviously apparent deviation. With a closer look, however, I began to notice that some of these conventional elements were being systematically undermined very quietly and patiently, serving to create the growing strain of tension that has finally become the main narrative force of the series.

There are a few reliable character types we can expect to find in a detective drama and the writers of True Detective don’t shy away from any of those; it is a full-fledged genre piece. We’re shown the mismatched partnership of Hart and Cohle; the desk-pounding police chief turning red from yelling; the unwelcome task force who threaten to take the case away; the detective who can’t balance his work and home life; the haunted cop with a dark past; and, of course, the psycho-killer. None of those are new to the genre. True Detective, however, does something really interesting: It slowly erases the distinction between conventional types,.

The last four minutes of the third episode of True Detective consist of Matthew McConaughey delivering a monologue, a tension-building ramp-up to the revealing final shot of the jock-strap-clad, machete-wielding “monster.” The scene functions in a few different ways. First and foremost, it coherently follows the investigation by leading us to the next step — we’ve seen the detectives work up to classifying Reggie Ledoux as the prime suspect. The episode leaves us in suspense, with a prolonged look at the man we have every reason to believe is the killer, and we come away from it with that last haunting frame in mind.

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(Episode 3. Cohle’s aluminum man echoes the creepiness of totems attributed to psycho-killers in the mystery genre.)

What makes it so compelling, though, is that the words coming out of Detective Rust Cohle’s mouth are words that an audience would readily identify as those of a psychopath. No detective talks like this, no purveyor of justice talks about death so trivially. One can easily imagine these lines being uttered out in a later scene by the deranged lunatic in the police box confounding his interrogators.

Pay attention to what he’s saying and how he says it. The way McConaughey’s delivery runs shorter and shorter of breath, how his voice becomes harsher and more intense as he builds up to his point. Apart from the performance, listen to the music—a slow, pulsing tone that creeps in, intensifying in conjunction with McConaughey’s voice. The montage itself begins by following his narration—we see the photos of dead bodies when he mentions them, we are shown the “unmistakable relief” in their eyes as he claims “they welcomed” their deaths.

Then something strange happens. From one of those grisly photographs, we dissolve into a couple of step-pause shots set in the bar from earlier in the episode. We see Rust dancing with his blind date, who gives a big open-jawed smile, then through another dissolve we see Hart and his wife having a good time, smiling at each other despite the marital issues, holding each other close. Then we dissolve right back to another crime scene photo. (All the while, Cohle has been carving out a creepy little beer-can man he uses to illustrate his point.) Those ten seconds of dancing and joy are way out of place. It has nothing to do with the investigation or the suspect, which is what we’re led to think he’s talking about, and is in obvious contrast to the rest of the montage. The way the information is presented assaults the security of genre expectations.

McConaughey’s performance has garnered a lot of attention from critics, and rightly so, but what I find really captivating is the way in which the filmmakers exploit the inherent tension present in the murder mystery genre. Cohle’s character is presented to us as both a capable, intuitive detective and a psychotic nihilist—in other words, at face-value, the writing identifies him as the hero and the killer in equal parts—and the narrative increasingly intensifies this contradiction.

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(Episode 1. Cohle staring into his tiny mirror. The heavy shadows and silhouetted figure heighten our impression of him as a mysterious character.)

Consider the ways in which the writing suggests Cohle is someone an audience would typically identify as the story’s psychopath. In episode one, we learn a few things about him. His house, the barren, smoky dry-wall cave he inhabits, goes a long way to alienate him from the conventional idea an audience has of a detective. The tiny mirror on the wall he uses to stare into his eye (one eye at a time) is a nice touch. He carries around a ledger full of notes and details about grisly murders, illustrations of dead bodies, and most recently, occult symbols. Understandably, the viewer may not be thrown off by that, simply because as the story unfolds it justifies these deviations from convention. But that’s exactly my point: the filmmakers use these justifications to the clever purpose of distracting us from what we’re actually seeing. Consider a detective drama where they find the suspect’s basement, alongside a few dead flies and amateur photographs, a big black book full of occult symbols and descriptions of murder would fit the scene quite nicely and would even add a new layer of grotesque to the whole thing. And imagine if he kept his philosophical musings in the same book:

I think human consciousness, is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.

That’s no way for our crack detective to be speaking. Granted, cynicism is often attributed to detectives in fiction, from Philip Marlowe to Jake Gittes to Jimmy McNulty. Vacant stares and a healthy dose of misanthropy are not surprising finds. After all, they’ve seen horror and death and been so close to the darkest souls imaginable that it only makes sense for them to be off. In Cohle’s case, however, he’s got the darkest soul in any room he steps into, even in Ledoux’s compound. In the latest episode, Dewall, Ledoux’s cooking partner is put off by Cohle, telling him: “I can see your soul at the edges of your eyes. It’s corrosive, like acid…you got a demon, little man.”

Why is it that the bad guys are more spooked by Cohle than he is by them?

In episode two we learn Cohle suffers from chemically induced hallucinations from his days as an undercover narcotics agent. He loses his grip with reality. The visions we are shown include blurred light trails, scored with a pulsing, grinding electronic track. The light trails and pulsing music give a creeping sense of dread, it pulls us down into his psychosis, into the hellish subjective reality we can observe Cohle reacting to. He’s on his way to see a prostitute, to whom he goes on to say: “I’m police, I can do terrible things with impunity.”

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(Episode 4. Cohle gives himself drug-user marks but to us it looks like he’s simply using drugs.)

As we’ve been taught by a century of detective fiction, prostitutes are a favorite for psycho-killers, and here we are with Detective Cohle watching him buy drugs and indirectly threaten one in a seedy motel room. The writers cleverly make this a key point in the investigation (his being tipped off about the bunny ranch) therefore turning our attention from what we’re actually seeing. Another vision we get is the flock of birds that morphs into the spiral we saw tattooed tattooed on the victim’s back, which the viewer now understands to be the killer’s trademark. The spiral from the crime scene and Cohle’s most intimate revelations are connected, entwined gracefully in a swirl of birds. The subjective forays into Cohle’s visions are linked with the mind of the killer in an observable way—we now identify that spiral with both the killer’s trademark and Cohle’s imbalance. That identification is key to our interest in Cohle as a protagonist and to elevating the tension in the show.

In episode four, we see Cohle as a bad guy in full regalia. He loses the shirt and tie for a leather vest and boots, he straps a belt around his arm and slides a needle into his vein, he takes lots and lots of drugs, and he joins the Iron Crusader biker gang in their heist operation. Okay, so all of these things are done in the pretense of furthering the investigation (more narrative justification) and it’s not the first time we’ve seen a cop go rogue, but given the previous indications, this episode furthers the impression that the information we’re receiving contradicts our understanding and expectations of the narrative. Inexplicably, in a detail that is not justified by the story, Cohle is the only crew member not dressed like a cop, further instigating the repeated motif of separating Cohle from images associated with his role as police. The dress-up aspect doesn’t make sense anyway, the bikers have long beards! Uniformed cops don’t look like that, this wouldn’t fool anyone (and didn’t for long). The whole scenario seems to serve the single function of explicitly showing us the discrepancies between what we see and what we think we know.

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(Episode 4. Cohle, cop dressed like a biker, uses Ginger, biker dressed like a cop, as a human shield. This contradictory image illustrates the subversion of expectation.)

As of episode five, the show has forked into two narrative avenues: the investigation into Cohle as a suspect in the killings and Cohle’s personal investigation of what he discovered in 2002. The codes and indications in developing Cohle’s character aren’t just adding color; they have created a definite tension and pressure between parallel stories. The suspense derives from two perspectives and we, the audience, know that one of those avenues has to be a narrative misdirect—but which is it?

What we’re shown results in a complex relationship between the audience and Cohle. Spurred on by these impressionist techniques, i.e. toggling between objective reality and subjective delusions, we identify (and in effect, sympathize) with the character whose subjective reality is shared with us. By seeing Cohle’s visions with him, by experiencing the hallucinations and feeling the pulsating sounds, as opposed to merely hearing about them, we grow closer to him, we trust him since these aren’t ramblings but as observable and real to us as to him. We the audience can trust him (and Hart) because as he lies to the detectives about the firefight with Ledoux, we see the objective reality. The writers have covered both grounds here, subjective and objective, to ensure our trust in Cohle.

This is where the tension is coiled and what the pressure builds upon: our foundational trust and interest in our protagonist’s goals are in conflict with the information we receive from the narrative surface.

This all comes around when he goes from sounding like a psychopath to directly quoting one. In episode five, Cohle says: “Someone once told me time is a flat circle.” That someone, of course, is Reggie Ledoux, who said the same thing only about five minutes of screen time before we hear Cohle repeat it. What makes Rust Cohle so interesting is the tension created precisely by this relationship his character’s attributes have with that of the bonafide psychopath—whose death is another significant deviation from the norm. Usually, we can expect stories like this to really milk that psycho character, give him plenty of screen time to get under our skin (think Se7en or Silence of the Lambs), but this show resists that, leaving us only Rust Cohle’s and his beer-can men. Pizzolatto and company have done an excellent job coiling up the tension which has now become the force of the show, and they’ve done so in what is clearly a systematic way, subverting some of the tendencies we’ve learned to expect from this genre.

So which is it? Are all of these indications simply clues given from the get-go that this guy is trouble—or are they given only in favor of the fantastic narrative tension created between the two possible outcomes? Given the writers’ penchant to derail expectations, that question is impossible to answer. That’s not for me to speculate on, anyway. I’ll leave the investigating up to the True Detectives.

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Pedro Cortes was born in Brazil, raised in North Carolina, and currently resides in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he works as a high school English Language teacher, researching for a dissertation on Southeast Asian film and culture.







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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Crabpaws

    Excellent commentary. And, enough with the Yellow King. The Yellow King is a classic film noir MacGuffin, people. It's a plot device. The Yellow King is not the killer. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M...

  • Guest

    I agree with that – it’s so prominently displayed - it's a
    writer’s template but not an answer but there to ask questions. I think there is a second book he is not talking about that gives the director visual answers and I offer some alternative ideas for fodder – mostly in observed symbolism. Has anyone noticed that anything to do with women in TD is in "3's". Go back and look - from the women in Harts family - wife, two daughters, the Charmaine’s three victim kids, - to the tricycle Rust's daughter was killed on and on and on. It's always threes which is the symbol of the White Goddess by Robert Graves - book cover older yellow version - the spiral symbol of the supposed killing cult displayed on the cover which is actually the pagan symbol for rebirth - then three women and a naked young man bowing before them in reverence (long hair), the woman in the center presents him with an eye - "seeing" - and a tooth - "wisdom and protection".
    The other two point up to three cranes - bird sacred to pagans- in a V
    migratory formation- birds beaks soaring into the future - feet in the past - a snake trying to sneak up on the man, symbolic of secret
    knowledge - and yes - a five pointed star - symbolic of truth. Often
    times the Goddess is portrayed with a similar tree as Dora Lang was found - but always standing proudly and powerfully before the tree - not dead and kneeling before it - a submissive position - the antlers butchered off an animal going against the pagan concept of harm none (lots of taxidermied animals in this show - keep thinking... ). She is also known as the triple goddess - the three phases of the moon with the circle in the center symbolizing the interconnected life system - in human form shone as a woman-- young, middle aged and the hag. (We have seen young and middle aged women prominently displayed – old woman I think is around the corner as a major character as we draw to an end). Thus far the story is told in three major time periods in the life of these cops. The Goddess predates but inspires the White Goddess and is connected to paganism, a huge threat to the Church during the old times -- "which it took the Church a few hundred years of terror and propaganda to exterminate and transform the image of paganism into devil worship, and folk culture into heresy" (this last quote paraphrased from wiki for sake of time) choosing the symbol of the cross - suffering instead of the star - truth (when we see stars – it always represents truth – the cross is always lies). The symbol of the coven
    was a circle and still is. The Goddess movement reemerged in the last century and for that reason - the battle of the old ones is reignited through the Tuttle church. Look at the symbol for modern neopaganism -- the Spiral Goddess. The stick sculptures look like Cajun bird traps (kill cranes) which in turn look like the Pagan symbol for "deadly". A message. This is not a story about men who are devil worshippers but it is about women who are Pagans – either literally or metaphorically. A literal ending will show that the church is continuing its extermination of Paganism and wrapping it - covering it's tracks - in its original propaganda - devil worship. Or just continuing a “symbolic ritual” started by the old ones. And Cohle is trying to be a champion to save
    them. Whether this is confined to a rogue southern ministry - or hinted it goes higher - who knows. It's a tricky and controversial subject. I do think that Nic has done a deliberate job from anything being “magical” so I feel the end will be grounded with a villain(s) who is (are) human. But who knows. One thing I am sure of is that this season is about the three phases of life. PS – I am not a Pagan so I had to look a lot of this up so please excuse me if some of my interpretations are not exact.

  • Crabpaws

    Interesting reading, but I think Pizzolatto is more obvious with his Easter eggs. You'll see archetypes everywhere whether they're intentional or not -- that's what makes them archetypes.

    I disagree with one thing: Everything points to a Christian rather than pagan cult -- which I find refreshing.

  • Evan

    I don't think it is a cult at all - I think the Christian cult idea is just public hysteria and a non-case solving plot point. I think this boils down to one person. Marty as the guilty party and it tale of learned abuse passed down from his father to him and down on his daughters. Again, 3's.

  • Lauren

    What in the world makes you think Chole is a psychopath or is suffering psychosis? Other than the fact that his apartment is bare (which is quite odd) do you really think someone who subscribes to an absurdists or nihilist view point IS a psychopath? Or even further-that the writers think the majority of the audience would feel that way? The reason people ('bad' guys as you say, although I argue all the characters feel similarly around him) recoil from him is because he is able to see through the bullshit and the facade people have going on, and this makes them uncomfortable.

  • John G.

    AND makes him way too obvious of a suspect. In any story with even a hint of mystery, the mystery is never solved with the character everyone suspects from the beginning.

  • Lauren_Lauren

    I really enjoyed your in-depth analysis. I'd like to see more of this.

  • L.O.V.E.

    I am Cohle's drunken internal monologue: hey assholes, I just made you a tin diorama of the crime scene. See all these guys with yellow star crowns on their head standing over a dead body? What the fuck do you think that means? These yellow Kings with their star badges. These Lone Star men. Hmm?

  • becks2point0

    I don't know if he was trying to give them info with that little diorama or trying to see how much they already knew by judging their reactions to it.

  • John W

    Season two reeeeaaaalllyy has its work cut out for it.

  • Treefiddy

    Season 2 will be all new actors, story, characters, etc. I just hope they pick some good actors. I'm rooting for Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman.

  • John G.

    It's almost impossible for them to do a good job on Season 2. If they stray too far from Cohle and Rust, people will get annoyed, but if they copy them too much people will get annoyed. I suppose it's the bane of any anthology series. You do too good a job in the first one, and you fuck yourself.

  • Ryan Ambrose

    That would be some inspired casting.

    They were both outstanding working together in 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy'.

  • Torgotronic

    That would be AWESOME.

  • emmalita

    I feel like I'm going to need to rewatch the whole series after it's completed. With all the pieces in place, I think we will be able to see the story being told.

  • Ryan Ambrose

    I intend to do the same, this series has the Memento factor in spades, which is what I call something that begs to be rewatched after having seen the puzzle fully formed.

  • emmalita

    Exactly. This is my favorite kinds of storytelling. I saw Philomena yesterday. Towards the end Martin quotes TS Eliot, the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. That is what True Detective feels like.

  • Frank P. Gengo IV

    You definitely win most interesting mini-bio, Pedro.

  • Allijo

    The more I read this the more I thought "This sounds like Sherlock Holmes."

  • TheOriginalMRod

    "Those ten seconds of dancing and joy are way out of place." yeah, maybe, but I thought he was making an analogy about how people go through the motions, the "dance" and how it is all really insignificant in the end.

    Is that too dark? Did I do that?

  • Colleen Dente

    Semi-connected: the other place he mentions his joy-in-death philosophy is when talking about his daughter, Sophia. This whole speech, upon a second viewing, is completely out of character for him. He says things like "she saved me from the sin of being a father" and "think of the hubris it must take to yank a soul out of non-existence," both of which allude to religion/a higher power which he's completely rejected until now. He never talks about personal actions within a sin/good/bad context, yet here he is, projecting GUILT. Perhaps he means it allegorically, but I can't imagine that it's unintentional. The music also becomes hopeful, in a major key, for maybe the first time I can recall in all 5 episodes. Very revealing -- although of what, I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

  • cruzzercruz

    One thing I had never picked up on, that creators Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Joji Fukunaga mention in an episode breakdown, is the fact that Cohle drinks beer during his interview with the police in the present not just because he's a functioning alcoholic, but also because it makes anything he says to them inadmissible as evidence. Just like Marty says, he's actually sizing THEM up. Brilliant.

  • Nadiney

    Ooh!

  • idiosynchronic

    Sidebar : The writers are also obsessively referencing The King in Yellow, a turn of the century collection of short horror stories.

  • John W

    It's a free kindle book on Amazon or free through Project Gutenberg.

  • manting

    yes its part of the "Cthulhu mythos" as is his Hastur Cycle. The use of The King in Yellow and Carcosa is a more subtle way of referencing the Cthulhu mythos than say using the Neconomicon, which was of course was written by the mad arab Abduhl Alhazred.

  • alannah mcgrowdie

    my Aunty Julia got silver Volkswagen Beetle
    Convertible by working parttime off of a home computer... Look At This F­i­s­c­a­l­M­a­z­e­.­ℂ­o­m

  • John G.

    The King in Yellow short stories were published in 1895, when Lovecraft was 5 years old. They influenced his Cthulhu stories. They weren't invented by him.

  • manting

    yes but it is included in the Cthulhu mythos. I dont see the difference if his stories predate Lovecraft, Bloch, and Dereleth.

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