‘True Detective’ Season 3 Premiere: New Mystery, Familiar Mood
Season 3, Episode 1: ‘The Great War and Modern Memory’
The great 1996 documentary “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” about a triple-murder in Arkansas charged to teenagers later known as the West Memphis Three, opens with helicopter shots of the wooded area where the bodies of three prepubescent boys were discovered. Across 150 minutes, the film bears witness to a shocking miscarriage of justice, triggered by coercive police tactics, an incompetent defense and the presumptions of a community that wanted to lay this horrific case to rest.
The documentary and its two sequels helped raise public awareness of the case, and after a successful (if unusual) plea deal, the West Memphis Three were finally released from prison in 2011, 18 years after the murders.
The new season of “True Detective” also opens with overhead shots of a wooded area outside a small town in Arkansas — referred to, ominously, as Devil’s Den — and closes with Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali), a state detective, discovering the body of a missing boy tucked away in a cave. There are other specific connections between “True Detective” and “Paradise Lost,” particularly in its three teenage outcasts. One of them is questioned over his Black Sabbath T-shirt, a reference to the “satanic panic” that colored the case against the West Memphis Three.
But mostly, it is bound to “Paradise” by the milieu itself — a mostly white, poverty-stricken community that is reckoning with a terrible secret in the forest outside town.
How that secret will manifest isn’t clear yet in “The Great War and Modern Memory,” the first episode of the show’s third season, but the setting is thick with a familiar ambience. There is no narrative continuity between one season of “True Detective” and the next, only the auteur stamp of its creator, Nic Pizzolatto, whose prevailing instinct is to create spaces where evil has a tangible presence.
[Read a review of Season 3 by the Times TV critic James Poniewozik.]
The first season turned southern Louisiana into a swampy vortex that slowly drew its characters to the darkness at its center; the second season, for all its flaws, followed a rich tradition of SoCal detective stories, like “Chinatown,” that plumb the depths of municipal corruption. In this first hour, the town of West Finger, Ark., carries that same menace, especially at night, when its neighborhoods of ill-kept ranch houses are drastically underserved by streetlights.
West Finger comes alive through the lens of the director Jeremy Saulnier, a genre specialist whose work includes the violent, Coens-like noir comedy “Blue Ruin” and the thriller “Green Room,” about a punk band fending off a bar full of neo-Nazis. Saulnier directed only the first two episodes of the new season before getting replaced by Pizzolatto himself, but he succeeds in returning the show to its roots as an atmospheric procedural. The storytelling is much more streamlined than the second season’s, at least in the early going, and its revelations are elegantly sprung across three timelines.
The streamlining starts with Hays, firmly established as the central character after a season that cast four big-name actors (Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Vince Vaughn and Taylor Kitsch) as variations on the same hard-drinking, morally compromised antihero. Hays comes from the same stock, but he’s not yet so paralyzed with self-doubt that he can’t work the case in front of him.
On November 7, 1980, properly memorialized here as the day Steve McQueen died, two children are reported missing after riding their bikes to the park and never coming home. Suspects include three teenagers in a purple Volkswagen bug; a Native American who piles trash on the back of his go-kart; and members of the children’s’ family, including their father, Tom (Scoot McNairy), whose marriage to their mother, Lucy (Mamie Gummer), has hit the skids, and Lucy’s cousin Dan, who once crashed with them for a six-month stretch.
[Season 2 of ‘True Detective’ wasn’t as bad as you think. A writer explains why.]
As it did with Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle and his “time is a flat circle” philosophizing in the first season, a chunk of this information unfolds through a deposition long after the fact — in this case, 10 years — and the show adds a third timeline, 25 years after that, when the elderly Hays has acquiesced to an interview for a true crime show. (Old-age makeup is notoriously difficult to get right, so it should be said that Ali’s transformation is exceptionally good here.) Other major characters get a toehold on the first episode, too, including Stephen Dorff as Hays’s partner, Roland West, and Carmen Ejogo as Amelia Reardon, an English teacher who will eventually become Hays’s wife and write a book about the case.
Pizzolatto’s script goes easy on the hard-boiled Pizzolatto-isms for the time being, which allows his strengths for baroque plotting to shine through more clearly. Time will tell whether the unsavory aspects of the story — child murder and abduction, a peephole into the little girl’s room — will drag it down or if Pizzolatto will lose the plot as much as he did in the second season. But the two big twists in “The Great War and Modern Memory” — that Amelia married Hays and wrote about the case, and that the little girl is still alive in 1990 and apparently burglarizing pharmacies in Oklahoma — are expertly handled, and the various suspects and witnesses are laid out clearly and carefully.
Getting those establishing details right is no small feat, especially after a second season that sowed confusion and contempt from the opening hour. The third season of “True Detective” may be scaled-back in ambition, but Saulnier and Pizzolatto get the hooks in deep through evocative scene-setting and the bread-crumb-by-bread-crumb storytelling of a classic procedural. As Hays steels himself to explore the darkness at the edge of town, it’s easy enough to follow for now.
• That last exchange between Hays and West (“It’s too dark, man.” “I don’t care.”) feels like an I-yam-what-I-yam moment from Pizzolatto, who might feel inclined to wink at his critics after last season.
• Race will surely become a factor as the season moves along. The initial meeting between Hays and Amelia leaves the question hanging — “How is it here … you know?” — for now.
• Devil’s Den joins Cape Fear in the annals of prophetically named public spaces.
• The peephole in the boy’s room, most likely carved out by Lucy’s cousin, is the first big lead in the case, especially when the boy turns up dead and not his sister. It is also a Pizzolatto — and noir — convention to have this secret space in the back of a closet, undercurrents of unfathomable evil coursing through everyday life.
• Fans of the eclectic music supervisor T-Bone Burnett may chuckle at the Mickey Newbury version of “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In” that closes the episode. Burnett also produced the eclectic soundtrack for “The Big Lebowski,” which used Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s single for the surreal, Busby Berkeley-esque dream sequence at the bowling alley.
Source: Read Full Article