Saturday, July 26, 2014
The Last Five Minutes
I decided to get into the weeds with True Detective, Season One:
Lance Mannion has a motto. “You can't make a Policeman take the Romantic view.” As Rust Cohle and Marty Hart make their co-joined way through a 17-year labyrinth of an investigation, one of the most gripping aspects of our journey with them is the long-term argument they're having. Rust takes Lance Mannion's side. Marty battles against the dark, and he's mostly losing. That's why Marty says, on more than one occasion, “just shut the fuck up.”
In fact, Cohle is arguing against the metaphysical “romantic view.” The romantic view asserts that justice prevails, that love endures, that in the end, “things” do in some sense turn out all right. In every episode of True Detective we are presented with evidence for Cohle's view, starting from the very beginning, when the cruel, senseless murder of a beautiful woman is thrown into both the detectives' faces. Hart must look away in horror. Cohle creeps closer, making detailed illustrations of various features of the crime scene which he alone apparently notices. It is after this brutal slap in the face that Hart asks Cohle, in the patrol car, what he believes. Cohle answers that he believes human consciousness was a terrible evolutionary mistake—basically a malignancy—and that humans should stop reproducing to save the rest of the planet. This elicits the first of Marty's STFUs.
Marty's way of understanding life is to compartmentalize. He has his idealized family, his beautiful wife, his beautiful young children. Then, now and then, he has his objectified mistress, a beautiful woman who actualizes all of his sexual fantasies for him in trade for his interest. Marty of course grows to believe he owns the woman, as he believes he owns his children and his wife. But all the fissures we perceive in Marty's life are also seen by Cohle, and eventually by Marty's wife and children.
Eventually, Marty's wife selfishly exploits Cohle with the conscious plan of forcing Marty to leave her. Even then, Cohle tells Marty that he must own his choices. Yes, Marty's wife seduced him. Yes, he let himself be seduced.
In the excellent finale episode, Marty and Cohle get their perp, and are both wounded in the process. Marty's wounds are less severe and he becomes Cohle's protector after he is well enough. And so the two friends come to the last five minutes of the show. (Spoiler alert!!)
During his period of injury and unconsciousness, Cohle says he experiences a sense that love is bigger than death, that somehow in “the end” things will be alright. Apparently his darkness has lifted, via a “near death” experience of a sort.
Certainly there are several reasons for this last turn of events in the story line of True Detective, Season I. As a report of the two detectives' changing states of mind, it is not unbelievable that either of them might change and even “learn” from what they've experienced over 17 years. Hart has been accepted once again by his wife after more infidelities had driven her to cheat on him with Cohle. Cohle had through the series been haunted by the death long before of his daughter, and no doubt many people do manage to deal with such life tragedies, sometimes returning to a state of joy and happiness which they might at first find blasphemous in the context of loss. Sometimes survivors are haunted by a “why me” kind of question. Some of these survivors eventually move back to experiencing life without such a question framing everything else.
On the other hand, a story like True Detective, Season One, is more than merely a set of particularities if it is a great story. Rather, the story is a series of very graphic, particular experiences for us and the detectives living them conjoined with the detectives' own commentary on the meaning of these events. And the meaning of an event is more than the particular puzzle the detectives are trying to solve. Yes, they are looking at the performance of a tent revivalist because he's a lead, but they also comment on what he's doing and how he's living. Is he a fraud or the “real thing?” And is what he's offering to his listeners salvation on any level, or delusion. Cohle, for the whole series, is more or less taking the position of David Hume: if it's romantic it's but sophistry and illusion; commit it to the flames.
The series suggests that Cohle's dark view is grounded in the particularity of his own daughter's tragic death. But Cohle finds support every where he looks for his dark view—the realistic view. And we, the viewers, are shown in every episode that Cohle is right, that he sees the world aright. The unctuous religious power figure who intervenes in their initial investigation does have an ulterior motivation. The detectives who interview him and Hart much later are, indeed, “company men.” And the fantasy which the killer cult indulges is blown away, a dark romantic fog, by the realities Cohle and Hart continue to uncover.
As an ending Cohle's redemption is emotionally satisfying to the viewer. I can actually testify to that—I felt at the moment a definite pleasure that Cohle was going to move past his dark view of things. Just this, the psychological need for the view to be “completed,” is at the level of entertainment argument enough to win the day. It's been the winning argument on more that one movie before. A great example, to draw from my own favorites, is the ending of Peckinpah's The Get Away. Compare that to the ending of Peckinpah's best movie, The Wild Bunch.
I'm told the Jim Thompson novel from which The Get Away is taken ends differently, with the two lovers plotting to kill each other after a few months of bliss. While Hart's return to marital accord also ends True Detective, we've already seen him fall off that wagon before, and several times. How then, to understand Cohle's new perspective? Perhaps he's just trying to make Hart, and us, feel better, in the moment. It's hard for me to believe in his testimony, or that he can really change into a happy camper. We and he have seen too much. As he says, a lot of the killers are still free.
I'd have liked to see the truth be driven home a little harder by the series. Even the Maltese Falcon's wry musings-- “... the stuff dreams are made of...” – is harder hitting that Cohle's explicit renunciation of his life's deepest lesson. His dark view is not based on his daughter's tragedy alone, or on his “nature” (an idea he raises when he and Hart are discussing the reasons they were drawn to police work). Cohle sees the world clearly. To tie his view to his daughter's death is to trivialize it.
As my late friend's aunt said, “old age is not for the faint of heart.” Hart's last comment is ironically clearer seeing: “at least we got our man.” Or as Robert Creeley put it, in a conversation on a similar subject:
“drive,” he said, “fer christs sake look out where yr going."
Sunday addendum. One of the touchstones for True Detective is Ambrose Bierce. It occurred to me in the night, rain drumming on the tin roof, my place looking in mid-summer way too much like the Billy Childress home place, that there's a tiny "clue" in the last episode which if it's as I think it might be changes how we understand the "coversion" at the very end. One of the little jokes in the last episode happens when Marty and Cohle drive up to the decrepit mansion in the Louisiana jungle. They don't have cell phone reception. Thus, they can't call in the backup they know they may shortly need, since they're dealing with a serial killer. "Go ask if they have a phone," Cohle tells Marty. He does, then breaks into the house and eventually (after we've seen the state of the place, its chaos and disorder) finds a green land-line phone. It's only a very brief shot, that view of the phone (and that it's green is rather important as green keeps coming up in the story as a talisman). My memory of that shot is, the phone is not connected to anything.
After that shot Marty hears Cohle yelling for him and he runs outside. Cohle is well in front of him, chasing the killer into a labyrinth of jungle and crumbling colonial coastal fort (reminded me a lot of Fort Macon, on the NC Coast, which has been restored and is a tourist attraction). Eventually the two detectives meet Childress, who attacks them and stabs both of them severely. Cohle is lying on the floor, a terrible knife wound in his stomach. Marty has a hatchet sticking out of his chest and is also on the floor, Childress looming above and about to administer the coup-de-grace. Then Cohle manages to get off a shot from the ground and kills Childress. So there they are, both seemingly mortally wounded, and buried in a fort no one may even know about.
Then there is a nice long tower shot of blue lights flashing in the woods around the mansion (reminded me in a way of Mizoguchi's great long shot of the burning of the bailiff's redoubt), and then we see the two detectives, rescued and recovering. But what if all of this is an Owl Creek moment. Mr. Bierce made it work. In this case, such a solution would leave Cohle with his accurate view of how things "really" are. I mentioned the Wild Bunch earlier. This would also be a kind of Wild Bunch ending solution (and something Tony Scott was fond of as well--see, e.g., True Romance). I tried to find out whether anyone writing about the show has mentioned whether the phone was connected, but struck out. If I'm mistaken, well take this as a possibly interesting speculation, a turn the writer and director of this great show didn't take.
Here's a couple of links, the google has a lot more: