“True Detective” has never been a series of tender moments, but “True Detective: Night Country” — the show’s fourth season, after a five-year hiatus — takes a particularly unforgiving approach to the human condition. There is a moment at the end of the six-episode season, however, where the dour pop soundtrack turns sentimental and it’s clear that we’re meant to be tenderly moved by what’s happening. What happens is someone disposes of the dismembered body of the close family member they just killed.
Created for HBO in 2014 by writer and English professor Nic Pizzolatto, the original iteration of “True Detective” was a gothic crime drama, in anthology form, marked by Pizzolatto’s penchant for seemingly profound dialogue and quasi-poetic – Raymond Chandler by the way. by Rod McKuen.
The new season, directed and largely written by Mexican filmmaker Issa López (premiering Sunday), dispenses with poetry – it’s overall a frank affair. But where Pizzolatto’s “True Detective” stories were essentially traditional noir with a dash of pop psychology and horror-movie sensationalism, López fully commits to the outré and the supernatural. Parricide? It’s just to get some fresh air.
López questions whether the cops, scientists, mine workers, and Alaska Natives who populate her story are actually dealing with malevolent spirits, but she is lavish in her use of horror effects to shake the audience and turn the plot. Invisible voices abound and the dead are frequently seen. Polar bears appear in the darkness. Oranges appear mysteriously and repeatedly out of nowhere and roll under the characters’ feet. A group of men freeze in a big mess, naked and screaming, and have to be cut out of ice and slowly thawed under bright lights. (Somewhere, “The Thing” wonders why he didn’t think of that.)
What caused the deaths of the Frozen Men is one of the cases at the center of “Night Country”, the other being the brutal murder of a young Aboriginal woman years before. The investigation into the two cases, the link between which gradually becomes clear, features two cops who hate each other, not in a funny or joking way, but with great sincerity.
Jodie Foster plays Danvers, the abrasive police chief of the isolated Alaskan mining town where the story takes place, and Kali Reis plays Navarro, a headstrong state trooper. Both characters carry crippling baggage: family deaths; loved ones in difficulty; terror in war; the disadvantages of being a woman and, in Navarro’s case, of being indigenous. On top of all that, they share a dark moment from their professional past, a secret that, like many things throughout the season, is frequently teased before being revealed in disappointing fashion.
And they’re not alone in their dysfunction: Almost everyone in “Night Country” is beaten or broken, angry or embittered. The exceptions are the saps: the preternaturally kind bartender, Qavvik (Joel D. Montgrand), whom Navarro uses for sex, and the puppy deputy, Pete Prior (Finn Bennett), whom Danvers considers a son of a bitch. substitution and merciless overwork. They both border on caricature – exceptional men because they are fundamentally honest – but Montgrand and Bennett make them credible and sympathetic. John Hawkes can’t do the same for Prior’s father, Hank, a corrupt cop who eagerly awaits the arrival of his fiancée on the line from Vladivostok; it’s a real cartoon.
The arctic settings (the season was filmed in Iceland), shot with an emphasis on darkness and vast empty landscapes, fit perfectly with eerie horror motifs; close comparisons include John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and the British series “Fortitude,” a series that covers some of the same ground as “Night Country” but in a more entertaining and less boring way. López, with the help of cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, deploys these elements in an atmospheric if convoluted mystery that looks and feels, for a few episodes, like it could build to an interesting conclusion. But she can’t stay in control: the mystery gradually dissolves into absurdity, the characters descend into incoherence, and the horror isn’t original or evocative enough to carry things on its own.
The only way the season can be said to have succeeded, even on the basis of its beliefs, is by depicting cultural and economic depredation: the environmental damage caused by the mine is a factor in the mystery and the resolution of the story is better. explained by problems and emotions than by evidence or character development.
That might make “Night Country” popular — an example of a growing genre that might be called virtue-noir — but that doesn’t make it good. Pizzolatto’s crush became oppressive, but thanks to his florid abundance, actors like Matthew McConaughey, Taylor Kitsch, and Mahershala Ali were able to craft interesting characters. López doesn’t give much to his performers, beyond attitudes and postures.
At the center of the charged but dreary proceedings of “Night Country” is Danvers, who is a sort of anti-character: a protagonist, and essentially a heroine, who is almost comically unpleasant and inconsiderate and hated by almost everyone at the time. ‘screen. (It’s a construct built for our current political climate, the barely redeemable Karen.) Foster, against all odds, finds ways to make Danvers seem human and even discovers glimmers of humor in her; how she does this is a greater mystery than those men in the mirror.