Give ’em the old Razzle-Dazzle…

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a perfectly acceptable, run-of-the-mill Hollywood Action movie. It’s fine brain candy, nothing too exciting or interesting, but very pretty. There’s no need to go out of your way to see it, but grab some friends and kill some time (maybe on a discount night) and see a fun film.
However, since Star Wars is woven into the cultural zeitgeist as tightly as it is, people seem hell bent on insisting it is better than it is to justify the nostalgia hit it gives them.

This isn’t particularly spoiler-filled, but I am not going out of my way to avoid spoilers here, so if you want to back out now, you probably should. If you like a more spoiler-filled version that makes many of the same points, go check out my friend Andrew Collas (The Grumpy Old Gamer). His YouTube review has a similar critique, but he goes into more story specifics.

Visually, the film is lovely. It looks like Star Wars, it moves like Star Wars, and it has the wonderful, lived-in feel to the technology, locale, and universe. It is clear JJ Abrams and company really wanted to make sure everything felt and looked right, and took clear delight in making it. There are a few CGI-based elements that are a little weaker, but I can’t complain too much there.

John Williams adds a new soundtrack and it swoops and soars and roars triumphantly with gleeful abandon.

The acting is mostly strong. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are a delight to watch as Rey and Finn, and I expect both to go on to be big stars. Oscar Isaac is also wonderful, in the lesser-used part of Poe Dameron.  I really expect I would love a story about them.

A shame I didn’t get one.

The problem ultimately falls on JJ Abrams’ belief that set pieces and emotional beats are all that are needed for a film, and pesky things like actually crafting a story are just annoyances that get in the way.

The result is a film that tells instead of shows, uses shots of cheap nostalgia to cover for lazy writing, and never creates any actual emotional investment in the people in the story. Give the crowd some nostalgia, make it familiar and safe, and use the fact fans will fill in the emotional heft for you and even better convince themselves they aren’t doing it.

No one is well served by the writing here.

The saddest case is probably Rey. Given the chance to write a female lead as the center of a Star Wars movie, it instead gives us a character who never has to earn a victory. She’s a JJ Abrams patented “Mystery Box Woman”, and he can’t even be bothered to hint at a resolution (probably because he doesn’t know and figures someone else has to deal with it anyway). She has no arc and nothing to do, existing almost as a plot device in her own story.  It is only Ridley’s wonderful screen presence that finds ways to make her someone you want to side with rather than a source of actual frustration.

Finn at least gets a character arc of sorts, sketchy as it is. We still get more things told than shown, but at least they seemed to try with Finn.

The movie gives gives far too much screen time to Han Solo instead of letting him pass the torch to a new generation, and fails to justify that heavy presence by actually building an emotional arc that merits it. Instead, he gets quips and one liners to keep him “charming” and remind people why they have great affection for the character, so that he can be used for an emotional scene later without having to actually write an arc building to it.

And finally, poor Kylo Ren has his legs completely cut out from under him as a villain. He starts off well, and even gets the potential for an interesting twist on a classic Star Wars set up (a villain tempted by the light side rather than a hero tempted by the dark) that they simply can’t be bothered to actually craft. The movie  even botches something that was supposedly a “big reveal” with both awkward dialogue and dropping it in casually too early and without build up. In the end, Ren comes off as ineffectual and useless, actually becoming less effective and threatening right after the big moment that should have pushed him to a new level. He never ends up as a menace worth defeating, he doesn’t come across as someone it is important to face again later, and is effectively a wasted opportunity. Maybe that’s the point, as a parallel to Anakin and Luke as whiny teens. As it stands, however, the fact the film implies he will return, and therefore possibly become more compelling, is maybe the only thing that keeps him from being less relevant than Darth Maul, who never even had dialogue.

JJ Abrams can’t understand why you would give up a set piece if you can get to the emotional beat with a short cut instead of actual story. He’s efficient that way. If nostalgia means people will be invested, then why on earth would you give the audience an actual in-movie reason to be invested – that just wastes time. You can see where all the elements for a good story are here, but actually spending the time to craft a real script would get in the way of set pieces, and JJ Abrams loves his set pieces.

Even with the set pieces the movie is surprisingly lazy. People remember there being a desert planet, let’s give them a desert planet! People remember there being an ice planet, let’s give them snow! People remember the Death Star, give them a bigger one! Give them a trench run! It again feels like just tagging on a nostalgia hit to make sure the audience is on your side. The actual scenes are wonderfully done, but it is hard not to notice him trying very hard to hedge his bets with fan service. (There is one location that looks new and fresh and interesting – they of course destroy it almost immediately.)

It isn’t a bad movie, really, just lazy and pedestrian. The “write beat to beat” style is a common one in Hollywood these days, and especially with a dedicated fan base, an effective one because they will paper over the flaws themselves since character identification is more important to most than story. It is gorgeous and fun. It clears the very low bar of being better than the prequels. It is probably the third or fourth best main Star Wars film depending on exactly how you rate Return of the Jedi. Like Jedi, it does the job without embarrassing itself, but it isn’t a particularly good film.  A 7 out of 10, and hopefully the next one has a real story with Abrams no longer involved.

 

UPDATE: After some discussion with a reader and being pointed to this piece by Charlie Jane Anders, I edited out the reference to “Mary Sue” for Rey. The term probably does have too much baggage and needs to be pushed back to a specific fan fiction usage. I disagree with Anders on Kylo Ren as Rey’s “teacher” – I only think one scene justifies that reading. (It is, in fact, the scene I thought most effective in showing us using her force powers, and if the rest had been done that way, I would have had no complaints.)

The Joy is in the Chase

Mad Max: Fury Road is a movie about chasing things.

Chasing survival.
Chasing glory.
Chasing treasures.
Chasing ghosts.
Chasing hope.
Chasing freedom.
Chasing redemption.

It’s just that all of it is filtered through two hours of chasing a truck.

The film has been getting stellar reviews and with good reason. It is a master class in a certain type of visual storytelling. Despite it’s over-the-top, operatic visual style, it is verbally minimalist. There is not a huge amount of dialogue. Of that dialogue, very little is exposition. At the same time, a whole world and backstory is hinted at by simply having everyone assume it exists. Despite my love of words and explicitly digging into the hows and whys of things, it is an approach I adore when pulled off with conviction. Act like the world is real, and the audience will accept it as real, filling in the gaps as they go. It is the very essence of “show, don’t tell”.

The world of Mad Max: Fury Road — like the Mad Max movies before it — is baroque and bizarre and doesn’t make much logical sense (nor maintain continuity from one film to the other, which works if these are all “Tales From the Wasteland” told years later), but at the same time has a sort of archetypal consistency which makes sense in its self-contained world. Everyone and everything feels like it has a backstory and some reason as to why its there. From the screams of “Witness me!” for each WarBoy’s sacrifice, the implication of three brothers running their corner of the world despite their differences of opinion, the hints of the Wives’ sheltered lives and rise to freedom, and the unspecified details of Furiousa’s history, it all seems to make a strange sort of internal sense. And all of this is done without ever stopping to explain it. There’s no time to explain, there is a War Rig to chase, and things to blow up. All of these bits happen around what is an essentially simple story – someone stole something and fled in a truck. Other people want to stop them. That’s it. The why of it all has a basic explanation, but the many layers behind that why are implied rather than stated outright. They don’t matter, really. You don’t have to know every detail. you just need to know that it matters to these people, and that’ s enough.

This can be viewed as underwritten. (Indeed, my companion for the second time I saw the film was bored to tears by and endless chase and thought the dialogue and story trite.)  But I actually argue it is just the opposite. It’s writing in negative space, letting all the visual elements of the world, the body language of the cast, and the basic internal logic of the story and character motivations, give you enough to buy into a surface story with a great deal of depth below the surface. By writing in archetypes, while letting those archetypes have human cores underneath, the story is conveyed efficiently, but with room for complexity as human frailty pushes through the symbol.

[As a side note, that leads me to the fact this film is being touted in some circles as a “feminist” film.  I think that does a disservice to the film. Besides the simple fact that feminism isn’t a single thing, but a number of different philosophies and political movements, it positions the film as an agenda-driven propaganda piece. The film only qualifies as feminist inadvertently. If you take the most anodyne definition of feminism, “women are real people”, then it qualifies. The internal logic of the film places a number of women in the narrative focus. Miller believes that the women in the film should have backstories and motivations and purpose, just like the men in the film should. That this incredibly low bar feels radical is a tragic indictment of the general state of films, but it is hard to say that makes it explicitly feminist. (Sasha James argues for a more explicitly feminist interpretation while agreeing with my basic reading of it being a byproduct of the story. I think she is overestimating the importance of Eve Ensler here, but at this point it is mostly nitpicking.) The movie effortlessly passes both The Bechdel Test and the Mako Mori test, but Joss Whedon probably serves as a warning of the dangers of pushing a role as “feminist writer” on someone who isn’t writing to an agenda, but simply doesn’t dismiss the women in their story.]

Having just recently re-watched the second Mad Max film, The Road Warrior, you can see this story telling style already there. There is a lot more hinted about the world than told. Everyone feels like they have an internal life and reasons why they are doing what they are doing. Even The Humungus has a sense of history, with the odd moment of his WWI era photographs in his gun case, and his hints of loved ones lost.

But while there is a magnificent elegance in this approach, it is clearly in service to leaving enough space to have virtually non-stop kinetic motion and visual spectacle telling the front story. There are almost no wasted shots in this film, all in the service of an extended chase. Despite a sort of constant ebb and flow of action, gradually escalating with each wave, everything on the screen matters. Prop detail tells little stories of character and world, with the return of a boot having an emotional beat and what looks like a piece of inconvenient detail from earlier in the film becoming important later. The ridiculous extravagance of the Doof Warrior’s speaker-laden, drum-beating, guitar-shredding death wagon ends up getting used for more than just show. Shots are framed where elements are happening in the foreground while additional story happens in the background, moving everything along with remarkable efficiency. It’s amazingly effective, and a reminder that different media have different strengths in how they can tell a story.

This tale could only be told this way in moving pictures, any other version wouldn’t be the same in a thousand subtle and important ways. It’s a tale of fire and blood and breathtaking stunts and action, anchored in a simple human story of people looking for a better life. It’s an amazing balancing act, and while exhausting if fisticuffs, bullets, and exploding cars aren’t your thing, it is the work of a master of his particular craft, and well worth seeing.

 

Godzilla Without Soul

By Saturday, May 24, 2014 0 , Permalink 0

I have a soft spot for The King of Monsters that goes way back. During my childhood, the NYC stations would run blocks of B-movies, a mix of Sci-Fi, horror flicks, kung-fu, and monster movies. WNEW had Creature Feature and Drive-In Movie, WPIX had Chiller Theatre, WOR had Supernatural Theatre, and WABC had The 4:30 movie.

Godzilla was a recurring star on all of these, and the story goes I would call my mom’s lab about an hour into a film, crying because Godzilla was dying. No one understood he was the good guy and it was the Biggest Tragedy Ever.

I anticipate and watch every re-launch of Godzilla with a certain childish glee I have no intention of ever letting my inner adult squash. However, I am aware that Godzilla is a franchise stretching back 60 years, often made on the cheap, and has been wildly inconsistent in quality. Indeed, the people making Godzilla have obviously had diverse views on what Godzilla is supposed to be about. (In this it resembles another property I’ve been a fan of since childhood, Doctor Who.)

There have been three major themes in Godzilla over the years:

  • Metaphor for the atomic bomb, nuclear power, science or progress in general.
  •  Big Monster Fights.
  • Camp silliness

Every Godzilla movie hits at least one of these, and you’ve probably got to hit at least two in order to be a really good Godzilla movie.

Last weekend, Godzilla returned in a beautiful, big-budget spectacle that rings hollow, too afraid to embrace the parts that truly make Godzilla great.

The new film does an amazing job with the monsters. Both Godzilla and his enemies look beautiful, while still somehow evoking the odd aesthetic of guys in rubber suits and puppets in both how they look and move. There are even scenes shot with the trailing smoke so often used in the old films to give a sense of motion to the flight scenes. The first debut of Godzilla’s atomic breath is simply spectacular, building slowly through his dorsal spines in a combination of nostalgia and growing anticipation. For most of the film, the monsters are shot from eye level, lending them weight and power. When they are revealed in full shots for fighting, they own the screen for the few moments they are allowed to shine.

And there’s the problem, for the few moments. The film isn’t willing to go camp, and is absolutely terrified of using any of Godzilla’s more serious history as a metaphor for the age of nuclear weapons, all they have is the monster fights.

And if that’s all you have, you better go all out with it.  In the end, there isn’t enough Godzilla in Godzilla.

Many have defended this, pointing out that holding off on the monster reveal builds tension, and is a classic approach to suspense. All true, but to do that you need the rest of the film to hold up, and that’s where this film is a disaster.

In place of camp or metaphor, the emotional center the audience is supposed to relate to is “Generic White Guy Protagonist #5” – military edition. Brody is a cookie cutter leading man with a cookie cutter pretty wife and adorable kid who the script writers seem to think we should care about for the simple reason that he’s on screen. I understand the desire to give narrative focus through a character, but you either have to write that character to be compelling or have an actor who is compelling by sheer force of screen presence. This fails both. (And considering the film has Ken Watanabe and Bryan Cranston floating around the fringes, it just highlights how uninteresting the lead role is.)

If the film needed a human scale perspective, there were options to give small, meaningful roles to any number of people who cross paths with the monsters. It is possible to make a single character facing an impossible situation sympathetic in a short scene, and a series of these moments would have been more powerful than some guy who is just too boring to care about.

While Brody is boring, and renders more than half the movie a chore to watch, the other problem is more subtle and more tragic. The film runs away from anything that matters about the origin and presence of Godzilla himself. I am fine without long explanations on the origins of monsters (the film rather admirably just sort of throws up its hands and says “monsters exist, let’s move on”), but there is no escaping that Godzilla is intimately tied to the atomic bomb.

While long stretches of the Godzilla franchise thrived on camp and spectacle, it never hid from the fact the original film is a dark metaphor of nuclear power. Here that background is swept under the rug. Godzilla just sort of woke up with the first nuclear submarine. The Bikini Atoll tests are explained away as just an attempt to kill Godzilla. Hiroshima completely vanishes from the Godzilla narrative, appearing only as an oblique reference for Ken Watanabe’s character’s motivation. It’s a cowardly decision, and robs Godzilla of some of his mythic power and given the pro-military choice of Brody, it smacks a bit of not wanting to remind anyone of the anti-military origins of the story. When the other monsters arrive, Godzilla comes to fight them, and the Watanabe’s scientist (who has apparantly been studying Godzilla by never finding him) claims Godzilla is a force of balance and a predator. How he knows this isn’t explained. It’s a reference to the role he often played in the Toho films, but with no background to earn it. Even the sense that he is a force that can’t be controlled, a last-ditch attempt to drive out other monsters – one that will result in more destruction in your city, but maybe save the world – is lost here. There’s no sense unleashing Godzilla is a risk unto itself, here.

In the end, none of that has to matter. Godzilla has existed as an excuse for a popcorn film for much of his run. But if all you have going for you is “Let them Fight”, then you should really let them fight more.

True Detective – Episode 8 (finale)

By Wednesday, March 12, 2014 0 , , Permalink 0

Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

That’s the surprisingly upbeat end of the story. And, as anyone who has heard me pontificate on Angel knows, it’s one I am ok with.

I wanted a “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown,” moment. I expected one. I thought it the logical end of the story. And that was only if both lived. I would have been fine with both detectives dead; or my anticipated scenario, Marty dead and Rust forced to live on.

Not a lick of it. They survived, and reconciled with each other, with their families, and with the Universe itself even. It was a buddy flick all along, about two men finding that in a messed up world, all you have is each other.

All of that worked, and worked well.

Unfortunately, it seems Nic Pizzolatto subscribes to the current belief that the character arc is all, and the plot doesn’t actually matter except to get you the character beats you want. It’s a common mindset these days, and it certainly does seem to satisfy the majority of audiences, but it sits uneasily in any genre where the plot and world building details are actually important. (Which is why I think things like Battlestar Galactica and Lost went so terribly wrong in the end.)

Here it was the mystery itself that failed to match the promise of its build up. On one level, that was the point.

They were only ever going to get a small piece of the puzzle stopped. But it just felt… sloppy. They get a stereotypical backwoods psycho (although one with an admittedly awesome mini-labyrinth aqueduct). One who conveniently seems to be the one who killed both the girl in 1995 and the one in 2012. And has hundreds of other bodies on his land, even though he never publicly displayed them, just the two needed to get Marty and Rust into the case those two times. There’s no evidence any of the extended family they’ve implicated have ever been there, ever associate with this lone nut, and no sense of an old shrine or anything else that implies the larger conspiracy.

I don’t mind they couldn’t get to the larger conspiracy, but this just felt like an excuse to give them a fight scene, and to indulge in some creepiness from an evil hillbilly. It felt lazy, not clever. They needed to have a climactic fight to have their near death experience. They needed to stop one part of it in order to feel they lit one star against the dark. So we got that, and just sort of dropped the rest.  Yes, I can construct a backstory that fits the plot holes if I really try (although some are a pretty serious stretch) but that’s not good writing. That’s adequate to get to the part he wanted to write, and nothing more.

So call it a solid B. It’s not the blow away story it could have been (and not just because it wasn’t what I would have done) but it failed on that final test of weaving the plot arc and the character arc together to a climax that reinforces both.

Even more disappointing however was that in the end, the women really were just props in the story of Marty and Rust’s friendship and internal growth. I really had hoped, in the careful way it was obvious that the show was critiquing Marty and Rust’s inability to see the women in their lives as much more than props to support them that we were going to make that blind spot important. The hints at something having happened to Marty’s own daughter, in particular, seemed relevant – that the detective’s curse of not seeing the evidence right under your own nose would matter because what was blinding them was their own views of masculinity.

But we got none of that. The family briefly shows up to sort of reconcile with Marty the hero, and frankly didn’t need to be there at all for all they did. Nothing came of it, it was just refrigerating for their personal growth. It’s justifiable in that the whole show is really all about Marty and Rust, but it’s tired.

There have been rumours that season 2 will feature women leads, which would be nice, but I get the feeling that Pizzolatto doesn’t really get why it’s an issue. The main characters had their catharsis, and that’s what matters – mood and emotional beats for the main characters. If he ends up writing women, I do suspect we’ll get two good female characters out of it, but that again everything else will just be built the same way.

Final recommendation – it’s worth watching, especially for the two lead performances, but in the end it falls short of its potential greatness due to some glaring blind spots in the writing.

True Detective – Episode 7

And in the penultimate episode, we are more straightforward police procedural than ever before.

It’s 2012, and after a contentious meeting in a bar, Marty agrees to see what Rust has, because they both have a debt. There’s enough horrible evidence there, in the form of the fate of Mary Fontenot, to convince Marty to take the case up again.

As they slowly go back to working on the case, you see just how little either has left in life. Rust, who always claimed the world has no meaning, once again shows he doesn’t really believe it. He needs to clear this last debt, this last piece of unfinished pattern, before he can kill himself.

Marty has a failing PI business, eats TV dinners alone, and hasn’t seen his ex-wife or daughters in over 2 years. He knows Rust is right that his hair-trigger shooting of Reggie LeDoux in 1995 closed down all their leads on the case then, and the continuing murders is a debt he owes.

So in a weird sense, after spending several episodes critiquing classical masculinity, we’re left with a version of a very classic masculine trope – “Honor is all you have.” Even if it isn’t their job anymore, even if they have no one who will honor or reward them for it, they have a debt, a duty, and they will follow it until it destroys them.

And make no mistake, I expect it to destroy them. At this point, assuming there really is a conspiracy, then this isn’t a single thing they can take down. This is embedded, long-term culture, wrapped in the history of one powerful family and backed by money and connections. You can’t stop that with a single arrest or a well-placed bullet. We’re heading to a “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown,” finish.

The episode felt like placing pieces on the board for the big finish, and that’s what I expect we have. We’ll head down to the home of the Tuttles, and Childresses, in Erath. There will be a shrine, either called Carcosa or a place to sacrifice to the vision of Carcosa. And they might save a person or two, and kill one or two people who are involved, but I don’t see them both getting out alive and I don’t see it truly fixing anything except maybe giving them some way to convince themselves they paid their debt.

The little character touches are there to let us know what’s happening. Maggie’s house is gorgeous, her family always had money. Marty’s eldest is an artist, one who sometimes decides she “doesn’t need to take her meds”. The younger daughter has been teaching with Americorps. Maggie shows up to Rust’s bar as well, where he dismisses her, refusing to even console her that this last case might not end up with Marty dead.

When the two get back to investigating, they sit in Marty’s car driving, in almost the exact positions they had in the first episodes set back in 1995. Full circle.

The most disappointing thing about this episode personally, however, is how much it feels like we’ve gone backwards on the deconstruction of masculinity some of us were hoping for. The women are even more invisible now, and with one episode to go, it doesn’t look like the fact that Marty and Rust overlook women is actually going to pay off in any meaningful way. Even the hints that Marty’s daughter was abused seems to have just been given a cursory nod but have not much to do with anything. I suppose there is still some small chance that Maggie’s family is involved, and the girls saw something, but it feels a bit like it would be tacked on if it shows up now. Worse, if Maggie is involved, it feels a lot like just a weak “women are evil” film noir trope.

I do expect at least one minor twist of sorts involved, just because for the life of me I can’t figure out why the 1995 murder was staged so publicly (and even had a fire draw attention to it), and the same with the 2012 one. It seems out of place given that all the other murders and disappearances seem to have been invisible. Someone broke protocol.

Like so many stories, a lot will ride on how the end plays out.

True Detective – Episode 6

And Episode 6 is The Breakup. We finally see what split Marty and Rust, and the straw the broke the camel’s back is a woman; specifically, Marty’s wife, Maggie.

In some ways it’s exactly what you could have predicted all the way back when Rust and Maggie first meet and bond – there’s an attraction, and it threatens Rust. But this isn’t an affair, it’s just sex. It’s quick, desperate, lonely, and quite divorced from love.

Maggie fucks Rust because she needs to hurt Marty. She needs to break up with him in a way that will hurt him, and make him accept that things are over. The weapon she has that can inflict that kind of damage?

Rust.

Rust who has always rubbed Marty wrong, always made Marty feel a bit inferior, and a lot like a hypocrite.

Maggie is right, it cuts Marty to the quick. I don’t think she realized just how much damage it would do to Rust, though. The loss of his family is what pushed Rust from eccentric genius to damaged visionary, as far as we know. His nihilistic slide started with the loss of his daughter, and the eventual conviction that the world is heartless, and he will never have the comforting illusion of family again. His vicious manipulation of “The Marshland Medea”, eliciting a confession and then encouraging her to kill herself, is driven by his anger over anyone killing children and destroying Family.

His desire for Maggie is only partially out of real admiration or attraction; she is a Wife and Mother – something he knows he doesn’t get to have. So when she comes knocking, while he is drunk and on suspension, he succumbs. He fucks her as one desperate claim to be allowed that peace, and in the space of her pulling up her panties he realizes he’s been used. It’s just one more illusion. He’s a means to an end, he will never be Family, and it breaks him.

Maggie’s betrayal of both of Marty and Rust makes sense here – she has reasons for what she does and how she does it. I am a bit confused why she’s lying about it 10 years later, though, to the detectives. I’m not sure who she is protecting, unless it is simply herself and her image after all this time. (Conspiracy minded people can conclude she’s hiding something bigger about the murders.)

Of course, Marty isn’t blameless in all this. He goes back chasing lost youth by sleeping with Beth, the ex-child prostitute he was so offended by in 1995. Rust accused him of “putting a down payment” on her back then, and now that odd prophecy has come true, even if she is a mobile-phone sales girl long removed from the Ranch. (I am sure the conspiracy minded have decided she is still a hooker, and was paid to seduce Marty and break up the marriage and thus remove the only two detectives who have any idea about the murders. Especially since both she and Maggie order dirty Martinis.)

But this break-up is only tangentially about Maggie. Rust had been treating Marty like dirt for a while, as his obsessive hunt for the real killer they missed 7 years ago takes him to the politically powerful Tuttle, the traumatized girl they rescued years ago (still in a mental institution years later), the father of a lost boy, and the tent-revival reverend they interviewed in 1995. He’s stepping on toes, and not respecting the fact only Marty is on his side. Maggie just ends up being the excuse to fuel the split.

But despite all that happened, Marty refuses to go along with the theory the detectives are spinning that Rust is the killer.

The episode ends in the present, with Rust and Marty agreeing to get a beer; Marty checks the bullets in his gun while Rust goes back into his truck, the tail light still broken from the fight they had 10 years ago. Time has come full circle, and all the past is prologue. I suspect we’re mostly going to stay in the present from here on out, as the two look for the circle of child abusers and murderers who have been haunting Louisiana for years.

True Detective – Episode 5

By Saturday, March 8, 2014 0 , , Permalink 0

Episode 5 starts with the aftermath of the big shootout at the end of episode 4, and we meet Reggie LeDoux’s partner , who tells Cohle that “there’s a shadow on you, son.”

And here in this episode we see the event that has cast a shadow over the rest of Marty and Rust’s lives; their heroic rescue of a little girl from crazed meth cook Reggie LeDoux, who is blamed for Dora Lange’s murder as well. For this they received commendations, a measure of respect, and even some happiness.

And it’s a lie.

For the first time in the show we get definitive proof that the story Marty and Rust have been telling detectives Papania and Gilbough isn’t all true. They describe a heroic rescue under gunfire while we see them sneak into LeDoux’s compound, and then a rage-filled Marty gun LeDoux down after finding the kidnapped and abused kids. The two men cover up the crime, and close the case.

But seven years later, an interrogation results in a return of the Yellow King to their lives. Rust loses it, attacks the man who brought it up, then starts investigating disappearances and unsolved murders and generally making a nuisance of himself.

Marty is self-destructing as well, only it isn’t over his job of course, but his family. His daughter Audrey has grown up rebellious and promiscuous. Cops catch her with two boys in the backseat of a car, and as always, a threat to his stable home life brings out the violent streak in him. He calls her “head of the varsity slut squad” and slaps her – horrifying his wife and his other daughter.

It’s clear 2002 has become fraught for both of them, and these twin pressures will lead to the final crack up that splits them for 10 years.

These secrets and lies are at the root of the detectives’ suspicions of Rust. He has returned after years, and Reverend Tuttle dies soon after. He’s been spotted at the new crime scenes mirroring the old murders, and all the “breakthroughs” in the old case were Rust feeding information to Marty. And yet those old lies are why despite their estrangement, Marty won’t turn on his ex-partner. His whole self-history as a hero depends on the lies they told 17 years ago.

This story has always been one of men, the lies they tell, and the ties that bind them. This episode highlights that as it shows the trap it is for Marty and Rust, even as everything feels like it is coming to a head.

And trapped is definitely a theme of the episode. Trapped within time itself, if you listen to Rust and LeDoux’s rantings. “Time is a flat circle”, Rust says (echoing LeDoux), indirectly referencing Flatland as he discusses how from outside time, we poor mortals are trapped to live through the same experiences again and again. The show’s narrative highlights this, showing us how the events of three time periods affect one another. We get to watch the story from outside the flat circle, seeing patterns the people trapped inside can’t see.

There are nice parallel structures here, contrasting how Marty reacts to an abused girl to his reaction to his own daughter. Marty’s shooting of LeDoux parallels the story of how Rust lost his job executing a junkie shooting up a child with meth. Rust revisits old crime scenes, finding new clues. It all feels like Twain’s quote, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

The mystery itself takes a step forward, but mostly in terms of proving that they got the wrong man in 1995. There are more hints that the Tuttle schools are involved, and many hints that Rust himself may be the killer. (For the record, I still don’t think so.) Subtler hints are dropped as well. Rust’s whittling of the beer cans results in 5 little people, arranged similarly to the “barbie gang rape” from episode 2. He’s started referring to “they” as well, by now.

In terms of the Carcosa theme, LeDoux claims to have seen Rust in Carcosa, and now in 2012, Rust echoes the same philosophy of a flat circle of time. Mysticism or madness? I still hope the show intends to never say.

One thing that did bother me quite a bit was the storyline with Marty’s daughter, and it will depend on how things play out. Because the story is so tightly on Rust and Marty, and the blinkered ways they interact with women is part of that, we see nothing of what actually happened with Audrey and the boys. I can’t tell given her 1995 history of weird sexual drawings and barbie gang rapes if they are going for her promiscuity as an actual sign of a troubled youth or not. While it is presented as statutory rape (which it is given that Louisiana has no “Romeo and Juliet” laws) we have no sense of her agency in the matter. Of course, to Marty that’s irrelevant, but seems a glaring hole given the context of what we saw in 1995. Hopefully it will be touched on later, but it doesn’t sit well with me right now.

True Detective: Episodes 3 and 4

In some ways, very little happens in these two episodes, even while there are major upheavals.

In the realm of the personal, we have the breakup of Marty and Maggie, which I honestly didn’t expect to happen in 1995. The whole way it went down just solidified my view of Marty. His view of himself as a family man is all important. He’s the kind of guy who if things went pear-shaped in his job I could see becoming a family annihilator. But it wasn’t that part that went pear shaped. His thing on the side did exactly what she told him she would do, and moved on. He reacted with an epic freakout. I can almost defend his “this is respect” in deciding if it was done it was done, but he again just decided that the story was what he wanted it to be, and was caught completely off guard by a woman acting under her own agency.

Marty is really a rather amazing incarnation of sexism in the form academics and social justice advocates often talk about – not the hatred of women in some cartoonish way, but a firm belief in the systems that keep the unbalanced status quo, and anger that bubbles up when anything threatens what the system promised him.

And what threatens him is fascinating, too. Rust shows up and mows the lawn. That simple element of domesticity, that touch of encroaching on Marty’s role as husband and provider, is enough to set Marty almost to blows. So much of himself is wrapped up in that facade, that he can’t stand anything that threatens it.

He gives a speech on the importance of family and relationships to give rules and boundaries as we see him head to his lover’s house to beat on the man she has moved on with. He talks about the importance of self-forgiveness as Rust points out it is just a way to not own up to his actions. And he remarks on the importance of community and rules to prevent people from doing bad as Rust notes that if people didn’t have the cover of religion and social norms they would at least be honest in all the crap they pull.

Cohle takes something of a back seat in these two episodes. We do get some of his back story with the Iron Crusaders, and we see his ruthless nihilism with his view of the people at the revivalist church and pointing out to Charlie he’s probably responsible for his ex-wife’s fate. His nihilism in 2012 stays solid, as he creepily starts carving men out of the beer cans, while casually lying about the illegal part of trying to run down Reggie LeDoux in 1995, and possibly rising to the bait of the detectives leaving the file of the 2012 killing in front of him when they step out of the room.

We’ve tracked another covered up murder to a school linked to Tuttle. The Revivalist preacher mentions going to a Tuttle-backed university. We also have Marty’s daughter drawing naked fornication pictures in school, and insisting the other girls thought it was funny. Any bets on whether or not her school is part of Tuttle’s “philanthropic” network? That the schools are grooming sacrifices seems obvious. The story Lange tells of “good killing for rich folk” down in the woods, with stones where people worship is pure old-school Lovecraft, with rituals older than the false veneer of civilization luring those whose thoughts turn to darkness.

I’m liking Maggie more and more, or at least her frustration with Marty’s obliviousness, and her willingness to call out Rust himself on resorting to rationalization for Marty’s actions. The men are so centered on their story as the only one that matters that they can’t see the women’s stories at all. I can’t tell yet if that’s going to fold into the main murder mystery or not, although the fact it seems to all be missing girls dying/kidnapped/murdered makes me think it will.

As Maggie says, “Girls always know before boys […] Because they have to.”

True Detective – Episodes 1 and 2

Note: I’m putting these up retroactively. I started catching up on the series about mid-way through.

And here I just thought it was going to be a nod to the magazine and pulp fiction. Instead we’ve got Southern Gothic with a touch of pre-Lovecraft.

I’m pretty sure every critic alive has discussed the gorgeous camera work and tour-de-force performances of Harrelson and McConaughey, so I’ll say I agree and move on to the mysteries the show has dropped us two episodes in. I’m still leaning on the theory they want the *mood* of The King in Yellow and some Lovecraft, with that sense of a cruel universe that would break your mind open if you truly understood it, and that we’re not actually going to get tentacled horrors from outer space.

Rust Cohle
———-

It’s pretty clear that the detectives in 2012 suspect Cohle of being the killer. They’re too interested in his “process”, Hart’s recollections of Cohle’s quirks, and the convenient fact he went off the grid and came back only recently, just in time for a new dead body with an antler crown to show up.

He is playing the Sherlock role in one sense – surly, anti-social, brilliant, addicted – but he’s also clearly the one who’s seen beyond the veil and had his mind broken by it. “Mainlining the Truth of the Universe” as he says in episode 2. He sees the pattern, just barely, and it’s destroyed him. His nihilistic world-view back in 1995, his shattered visionary self in 2012, all of a piece.

There are three pretty obvious mysteries about Cohle, of which two probably are significant to the show.

* The first is just the full story of his past before 1995. It will flesh him out, but I don’t think it is relevant besides whether or not he was the driver who killed his daughter.

* The second is what caused him and Hart to split and Cohle to drop off the grid. (This all seems to happen around 2002.) The most obvious choice for a split would be Maggie. Not necessarily an affair, but just Cohle staying friends while Marty and Maggie split-up. We’ve already seen Cohle gets along better with her and Hart’s family than expected, he mentions that his almost-second wife was someone Maggie introduced him to, and one can’t help but notice that Hart no longer wears a wedding ring. That might explain the split, but it doesn’t explain Cohle crashing and burning into the wreck he is now. Siding with Maggie and Maggie dying? Possibly. Although given the issue with Marty’s kids, siding with Maggie for custody and one of the kids dying would also be a strong choice for his ending up like this.

* The third is whether or not Cohle is the killer. He could be. The other detectives think so, and he’s definitely haunted. I’m leaning against him being the killer, but if he is, I’m going with him not knowing it. He’s the perfect candidate for the amnesiac killer trope, somehow seeking redemption for something he doesn’t even know he’s done.

Marty Hart
———-

I haven’t yet decided if Marty is as simple as he appears two episodes in. A salt-of-the-earth Louisiana cop, with all the problems of a man who thinks the world is supposed to run a certain way for men like him. A decently skilled cop without the brilliance of Cohle, but solid method and good at what he does.
Or maybe not.
Right now I’m leaning towards the idea that the weirdness around him is stuff he’s oblivious to, due to shortsightedness and privilege. He’s a fine contrast to Cohle in terms of philosophy, surface-level religious and happy to use his belief in good people and a proper family life to justify his sins. While Cohle claims to have seen “The Truth”, Hart embodies the “The Lie”. Hart cheats on his wife, and justifies it as for the good of the family. He wants his home life to be his anchor and solace, and indeed expects it as his due as the man of the house. He’s not stupid, and can see how unhappy Maggie is, and has clearly some inkling his daughters are disturbed by something, but stubbornly refuses to look at what might be the real cause. Instead, his wife is a “ballbuster” or has “a penchant for self pity”. She rightly calls him out on having selective deafness, and tells him he didn’t used to be such a chicken shit.

Marty clearly wants the world to work a certain way, and thinks any deviation from that is an affront to him. He gets called on this more than once, but it just seems to fly right by him. Maggie as mentioned above, but the madam at the bunny ranch does it as well- pointing out a woman charging for sex makes him mad because it implies she owns her sexuality and not him – and so does his mistress – noting she won’t wait in this deal as the Other Woman forever. He doesn’t really register it either time.

I’ve already mentioned he has no wedding ring in 2012, and I fully expect his split to be in 2002 and part of the reason he an Cohle don’t talk either.

But that’s all the simple story. There’s another one going on, one he either can’t see because he refuses to think of women as anything other than madonnas and whores who are there to comfort or satiate him, or one he’s more directly responsible for.

Something is affecting his daughters. They seem overly intrigued by Cohle when he visits. They have secret whispers. They almost get into a fight over their tangled fishing lines (which I think is the only reason this show passes the Bechdel test). They obviously are aware of Marty not being home when he should, even as he seems unaware of them noticing it.

And then there’s the scene where they appear to be discussing the car accident that killed Cohle’s daughter (despite no one telling them about that) while *acting out a gang bang with their dolls*. Marty notices, but sort of doesn’t notice that. Is he abusing his kids? Is someone else? (Their kinda racist grandpa perhaps?). Is someone else doing it? (Maybe at school?) Something is going on, and it is something we’re meant to notice, even if Marty seems determined not to.

The Murder
———-

The killer is almost an afterthought at this point. In some ways this feels like Twin Peaks, where the journey the detectives are going on/have gone on is more important than who killed the girl.

Right now we have some hint of a cult, be it Old Gods or New, and some belief in ritual. A serial killer seems the obvious choice, although cult ritual also opens the door for multiple killers and a conspiracy. The obvious candidate right now is the Reverend Tuttle, or both him and his brother Edwin. Why? Because there is no reason to have a fake governer unless you’re going to have the story go somewhere the real governer would sue you for. So we’ll assume those two are involved.

I don’t think the missing girl would have been brought up without it meaning something, and so I’ll chalk that as evidence that this has been going on a long time. (And involving someone who could convince the police to chalk it up to “report filed in error”.) I can’t decide if the devil nets are something made by the victims or the killers.

Then, of course, is the question of whether or not we’re going to solve the 1995 case before the 2012 one, or whether it is going to be simultaneous. (“This is gonna happen again, or it’s happened before. Both”)

I’m still hoping against an actual supernatural explanation. The vast, cosmic inhumanity of The Universe is enough for me in this.