Welcome to another edition of Great Job/Shitty Job. I recently finished watching the fascinating season 2 of True Detective and, well, holy fuck, it was one of the most uneven pieces of art I have ever seen. One scene would bring me to the edge of tears, while the next would feel like it was written by a 13 year old who is trying way, way too hard to be edgy.
Without further ado, let's jump into it:
Great Job -- Compelling characters with rich inner lives
Even if you thought True Detective Season 2 was a piece of shit, I bet you thought the characters had some potential or, at the least, they were intriguing. Here's what Pizzolatto did right and why he got a cast of the highest caliber: His characters had built in conflicts.
For example, Ani Bezzerides is introduced as someone who is so extremely kinky that it freaks out her boyfriend/fuck buddy. Then we see her sister is a webcam model and Ani sexually shames her. This immediately points out that there's something inside Ani that doesn't quite add up and hints at an active inner conflict and inner life.
Similarly, you have Vince Vaughn's Frank Semyon. Semyon is a man who has to become his past brutal self in order to become legitimate again. His actions are at odds with who he wants to become. If you can put a character into this position (he's doing something he hates in order to get something he loves) it always pays off in dividends when it comes to conflict and drama.
Velcoro is another man who is torn inside as his want (to provide the best life for his son) is what drives him to do pretty crazy fucking stuff. This crazy stuff is what drives him away from his son.
|Warning: He might buttfuck your mother with your father's headless corpse.|
Okay, yes, the plot is convoluted and all that. You've heard that a thousand times before. But what's worse than that: The plot doesn't utilize what makes these characters special.
Think back to Season 1. Rust is a man beaten down by the worst of humanity. So, it makes sense that the STORY pits him against a dark force that is almost cosmic in its evilness. From that conflict, he is reborn and finds some optimism... "Once there was only dark. You ask me, light's winning."
In Season 2, we learn that Semyon has a dark past with his father. Does this ever come back in the PLOT of his story? No, except this one really clumsy scene where his old Russian partner -- out of nowhere -- says "Frank, you're like a son to me" right before Semyon shoots him. We have a bizarre and long story line where Frank is trying to have a child... but that doesn't come back into the PLOT of his story at all. Seriously, even if you absolutely loved this season, take out that plot with Frank and his wife and their endless discussions about child rearing... What changes?
To contrast with that; there is one sequence where the show actually utilizes the unique nature of the character to make its plot stronger. When Ani goes into that weird orgy and remembers the face of the man who abused her, that's a great example of coherence of character and plot! If you have a character who has issues with her sexuality, of course, put her into a creepy orgy! That just yells OPPORTUNITY!
On the flipside... How does that insane action set piece at the end of Episode 4 feed into Velcoro's desire to be a better father or Ani's complex relationship with her family? How does that action set piece service character? It doesn't. It's just plot without character, without meaning, without drama.
|"Who, why, what doesn't matter! What matters is that we are going to shoot at stuff and it's going to be exciting television!"|
Look, nobody hates fake as shit "Happy Endings" more than I do. Ninety percent of movies have zero tension in them because you KNOW everything is going to be alright by the end. You know that Matt Damon is coming back from Mars, you know Liam Neeson is going to take back whatever/whoever the fuck has been Taken from him. As a result, most Happy Endings are unearned because the characters never sacrifice/lose important things.
But, wow, Season 2 goes so far to the other end of this spectrum it's almost surreal. It's cynical/dark/tortured ending is like watching a series of puppies beaten to death with a hammer. But, hey, you say... There's this guy with a huge beard that made a career out of punching his audience in the balls over and over again!
|THE PUFFY FACE OF EVIL!|
Contrast that with the slaughterhouse of True Detective. Let's take Paul Woodrugh's death. His arc is about rejecting his homosexuality and burying himself deeper and deeper into denial, even going as far as to enter into a loveless marriage. His death? His death has nothing to do with this arc. He just dies when he's ambushed by the faceless PLOT PEOPLE who shoot him. He is cast aside for the wheels of the plot and in a callous, random way.
Or let's take a look at the other two main characters who perish: Ray Velcoro dies after paying one last visit to his son before leaving the United States for good. This speaks to the inner tension of Ray; he is a bad man with this one shining light in his chest and it's his son. He thought being around his son would only spread his sickness, but he finds himself unable to just stay away. That leads to him being found out by the cops who were scoping Ray's son's school and now he's in the shit.
So far, so good! This speaks to his character arc and his unyielding love for his son!
But then he leads the corrupt cops to a forest where he is shot to death. He tries uploading his last words for his son, but the internet is shit and it doesn't work.
Him going to the forest (to grant a free shooting gallery for the Corrupt Cops after him and to make it as hard as possible for his phone to upload his last message to his son) is as forced and convoluted as the forced HAPPY ENDINGS of 90% of shitty movies. Semyon being taken out by a bunch of random Mexicans who were barely established feels like a similar cheat. Just as you can't force good endings by introducing a bunch of unicorns at the last second to fly away your main character, you can't just bring in a bunch of random characters to kill them either.
|BE DEPRESSED! BE SAD! BE VERY VERY SAD!|
"Poetic" is such a hard thing to do. It's ineffable. That's why it's so hard to visualize on screen. Most of the time, it comes off forced or juvenile. God knows most student movies are filled with this bad variety. Imagine that plastic bag scene in American Beauty. Now, imagine a lesser filmmaker trying that scene and it not working at all. How stupid would that look like?
If True Detective has one strength, in both seasons, it's that effortless reach for the Poetic. It's making the ineffable visceral. And by poetic, I don't mean beautiful, it's the opposite. I still remember seeing Le Doux for the first time, in that grotesque jock strap and gas mask combination and being shaken for some reason. Or in dialogue: "This place is like somebody's memory of a town, and the memory is fading."
Season 2 has the dark Bird Masked Man that stands over Ray like the Grim Reaper. Or Frank Semyon's long walk out of the desert. Or Paul Woodrugh's screaming motorcycle ride into the deep dark... But, for my money, the thing that nails the poetic nature of True Detective in this season is Lera Lynn's melancholic voice.
|No joke here. I find her un-sarcastically, un-ironically fascinating.|
Look, it's fine that she's not just in the soundtrack but an actual character in the show. It's bizarre, but sure, she's good enough that it's not a problem. But then you have long scenes between Velcoro and Semyon where they stop and listen to her. They look at her. The camera wants us to REALLY REALLY make sure that WE GET THAT SHE'S SINGING ABOUT THEIR LIFE. At some point, instead of being a part of the atmosphere, she is reduced to an unnecessary, and sometimes unintentionally funny, musical interlude.
And, look, in the grand scheme of things, she's such a small part of True Detective Season 2. But, I believe, this idea -- that they found something great and focused on it so much that it become annoying -- is emblematic of the problems of Season 2. It's as if everything that people loved about Season 1 was taken and put under the microscope until it became an eyesore.
- You loved the darkness of Season 1? We're going to make it so fucking dark, you're not going to feel anything but sadness and despair! Kill everyone!
- You loved that gun play sequence in Season 1? We're going to give you an even BIGGER action sequence with so many more guns, why and what be damned!
- You loved Rust's erudite speech? We're going to have all the character speak that way! Yes, we will have the corrupt gangster Semyon and detective Velcoro talk using words like "apoplectic" and "sublunar" as if that's the most normal thing in the world. No, we don't need a Marty to balance out this relationship, it's Rust all the way because people loved Rust!
|Contrast. Contrast is your friend. Imagine if Marty also talked like Rust.|
For the other Great Job/Shitty Job's, feel free to check out my take on Interstellar and Jurassic World.