22nd Jun2015

‘True Detective 2×01: The Western Book of the Dead’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“I welcome judgment.”

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Cool, Ray. You asked for it.

True Detective‘s first season seemed to have the zeitgeist firmly in its swamp-mummy claws, an unexpected pulp hit hitched to live-wire performances by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, filmed by the thunderous Cary Fukunaga, and veined through with little rills and creeks of cosmic horror. It wasn’t perfect. Pizzolatto’s bluster about “real men” and the show’s eye-rolling moments of realization and poorly fleshed-out women could and did drag it down at times. It was, however, a damn sight better than ‘The Western Book of the Dead,’ season 2′s joyless flop of a premiere.

Fukunaga’s replacement, Justin Lin, doesn’t have his predecessor’s eye. There are a couple shots worth looking at it. Ray Velcoro(Colin Farrell) pulling on a ski mask and raising a finger to his lips as a warning delivered right to the camera(before it’s revealed there’s a homeless man watching him) is electrically uncomfortable. The opening shot of plastic-tagged survey posts made to look like prayer cards or funeral markers, the overhead views of Las Angeles’ throbbing highway system, and the dead man in sunglasses being chauffeured to a sitting burial are memorable and stark. Almost everything else, especially Frank’s exhibition and the various police station interiors, are presented flatly and with no attempt at complicating or engaging their space.

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The only other memorable image is one I’m sure the editing team is wishing it had left on the cutting room floor right about now. Paul Woodrugh’s (Taylor Kitsch) cheeks flapping in the breeze like an open pack of salami in a hurricane is the only laugh I got out of this tepid slog. Kitsch has little to recommend him as a war-scarred former mercenary contractor now riding the highway on his motorcycle in an effort to forget whatever tragedy his past contains. His girlfriend, unnamed and first shown in her panties waiting for Woodrugh to “get that dick over here” is instantly framed as a well-meaning nag who doesn’t understand her lover’s pain. Staggering.

Stock dialogue plagues an episode without a lot else going for it. You can see Vince Vaughn reaching for something interesting in his role as Frank Semyon, a crook using a huge land deal to go straight, but he’s bogged down with lines like “behold, here once was a man” and “that filth hurt your woman?” are unsellable. There’s a humanity in Vaughn’s face, froglike and moist-eyed when viewed dead on as it frequently is, that suggests the man has hidden qualities and genuine affection/concern for his partner in crime, Velcoro, but there’s no getting past his leaden lines and lazy characterization.

“The Book of the Western Dead” looks with muddled focus at the ambiguity between legitimacy and illegitimacy. “Today’s exercise,” says sharp-edged and brittle Ani Bezzerides’s(Rachel McAdams) hippy guru dad, “is to recognize the universe as meaningless and to recognize that God did not create a meaningless universe. Hold both thoughts in your mind as equal and incontrovertible.” The line between police and criminals is a notoriously smeary one, as exemplified by Velocoro’s dealings with Semyon, by the cam girl operation Bezzerides mistakes for an illegal porn mill(“they even have a business license”), and by Semyon’s attempt to buy his way into the echelons of California’s old money with graft, intimidation, and a raft of dirty cash. At the same time Pizzolatto is shaking his head at the crooked system and its inherent contradictions, though, he’s reproducing some of its ugliest sentiments. The scene in which Bezzerides and her partner, Elvis, deliver a foreclosure notice to an impoverished family includes a lingering shot of their widescreen television right after the woman says there’s no money for the bank. It’s an unpleasant moment of judgment passed not on the people constructing a world in which the poor are expected to forego entertainment in order to remain moral but on the poor themselves for daring to reach outside their sphere.

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The show’s women aren’t much better on this go-round than they were in the last. Paul’s aforementioned girlfriend gets the short end of the characterization stick, the ankle monitor-ed actress he pulls over lies about him soliciting a blowjob and gets him suspended, Frank’s wife Jordan (Kelly Reilly) has next to nothing to work with outside of being polite, and Ray Velcoro’s raped and either deceased or comatose wife doesn’t even get a name or a face. Antigone “Ani” Bezzerides, meanwhile, is introduced in a scene featuring her boyfriend trying to walk back from freaking out about her unorthodox sexual demands. In an episode wherein Paul is shown as broken for his dependence on Viagara and city counselor Ed Casper is villainized the moment we see his private sex palace, it’s small and dull to show the cracks in Ani’s well-being by condemning her sexual aggression.

The case of Ray’s wife is especially unpleasant. She seems to exist solely as a woman in a fridge, a source of pain for Velcoro in order to generate sympathy for a man who bellows “if you ever hurt or bully anyone again I will butt-fuck your father with your mother’s headless corpse right on this goddamn lawn” at a terrorized 12-year-old after beating the kid’s father to within an inch of his life. That Velcoro’s wife’s┬ápain exists solely as an element of his┬ástory is disappointing, but it’s not surprising. There’s not a lot to Farrell’s performance so far. He menaces and berates his son with putrid intensity, then he regrets it, he drinks heavily(there’s a great exchange where he downs a glass of scotch in one gulp, Frank tells him “you’re supposed to savor it,” and Ray pours another and says “let me try that again” before immediately pounding it), and he’s crooked as barrel of snakes.

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T-Bone Burnett’s score remains strong, and the episode’s penchant for showing the corruption of the system by placing monologues over exterior shots as though the buildings themselves are talking with the voices of washed-up alcoholics is a sinuous, intriguing choice, but those are crumbs in a wasteland. The fun of Rust’s and Marty’s uneven car trip exchanges is gone, replaced by grim faces and terse refusals to talk. The heroic pan across the faces of the three protagonists at the episode’s end as they stand around the newly-discovered corpse of Casper (who looks exactly like @dril) is lionizing dreck, and unless the show starts to interrogate its own internal machinery and reach for a new visual palette it looks like that’s more or less what we’re in for.

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