A masterful long take brings True Detective to its midpoint [Recap: “Who Goes There,” S1 Ep4]
Kevin McFarland reviews the fourth episode of HBO's crime drama "True Detective," starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. Contains spoilers. If you're new to the show, start with our introduction here.
The final scene of the episode “Who Goes There” contains the most technically impressive accomplishment of True Detective yet. So far, Nic Pizzolatto’s writing has done much of the heavy lifting from a structural standpoint, with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson providing powerhouse performances. But with a nearly six-minute long take at the end of the episode, director Cary Fukunaga puts his first unmistakable stamp on the series, and it’s a virtuosic bit of choreography. Even with some assistance digitally stitching shots together, it will be nearly impossible to top--not just for this show in the back half of the story, but for any television director for the remainder of 2014. There have been long takes in television more grandiose than the one in “Who Goes There”—-most notably the X-Files episode filmed like an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. But this one is jaw-dropping.
I know a lot of long take detractors who will say that the technique is just a flashy, attention-grabbing gimmick. And yes, there are filmmakers who use it as a way of elevating middling material with technical proficiency. But the best long takes are the ones that emphasize thematic underpinning. My classic example is the contrast between the first two scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory: the second, filmed in a reverse track through a trench full of soldiers, emphasizes the truth of the miserable fighting conditions for those on the front lines in comparison to the ignorance of the high command. And like some of the best action long takes-—the Dunkirk Beach scene in Atonement, the battle scene from Children Of Men-—this one is a dramatic representation of ideas elsewhere in the script.
What makes that connection here is how Rust chooses to frame him taking a leave for “personal time” to his superiors in 1995 and to the detectives interviewing him in 2012: visiting his father, who was dying of leukemia. The present-day detectives have no record of Cohle’s father having leukemia, and can find no trace of him going back decades. And they’re absolutely right, since everything leading up to that point and after was designed by Cohle in order to put himself back into his former life as a drug-addled undercover agent again. But I think Rust chooses to link this cover-up with his father because of what he tells the detective about his father: that he was a Vietnam veteran, he and Rust were constantly at odds, and that his father believed he showed no loyalty in returning to Texas.
But that long take shows he’s probably more like his father than he’d care to admit. Starting with a shot of the biker gang marching their captive up to a “stash house in coon country,” as Rust puts it while undercover, the smash and grab job is bound to go bad. But McConaughey never wavers in his focus: he wants the source that will lead to Reggie Ledoux, by any means necessary. That meant dipping into his metal box of assault weapons, reviving his undercover alter ego Crash, and convincing a biker gang that he spent the past couple years running security for a Mexican gang looking to import high-quality cocaine and trade it for meth, all without alerting the cartels. That long take, which echoes Rust’s backstory as a particularly intense undercover agent with a penchant for reckless abandon, shows that he has his own kind of Vietnam. The long take is a battle scene, one that evinces Rust as a master escape artist.
Rust breaks a ton of laws in the course of getting to this point, and becomes an accessory to a ton of murders, all in order to chase down a lead that we, with the benefit of True Detective’s framing device, presume yields the incorrect suspect in custody. But for the quagmire that is Rust Cohle taking leave as a detective to go undercover with a biker gang that wants to rob a house full of drugs while posing as cops, it’s a gorgeously choreographed ballet of violence. It’s also notable that since the scene is bathed in so much darkness-—McConaughey is mostly seen in silhouette throughout the robbery and extensive escape-—that it obscures the violent moment. And the most violent part of the episode isn’t something shown on screen. It’s the way Cohle describes how a cartel would torture a man to death instead of a simple bullet to the head.
Meanwhile, Marty is falling to pieces. His mistress, Lisa-—a court stenographer—-comes after him at the courthouse for his egregious drunken behavior in the previous episode. Marty tries to blow it off, and it’s that kind of flippant reaction that actually ends up stinging him. Lisa goes nuclear and shows up at Marty’s house to confess everything to Maggie, and she responds by packing Marty’s things and taking their two daughters to stay with her parents. It’s a catastrophic personal moment for Detective Hart, and he doesn’t do well in it. He devolves into screaming obscenities at Lisa over the phone, and shows up wasted to Maggie’s hospital in some ill-conceived reconciliation attempt. When a doctor attempts to intervene, Marty flashes his badge, as though it’s some kind of magic wand he can wave to absolve himself of any perceived wrongdoing. In the episode’s one bit of comedy, Marty moves in with Rust, so that the two partners, while not exactly making a ton of progress on the case, now ping back and forth in closer quarters. Marty’s unraveling puts him in a position for Rust to manipulate him in order to make a big move.
Tellingly, “Who Goes There” lacks a question mark, which I take to mean that it’s a statement about how far Rust and Marty are willing to go for this case. Marty does what he can in the face of his crippling personal insecurity, and that’s to bully a strip club bartender into identifying one of the girls working for Tyrone Weems, track her (while drinking and driving) all the way out to a warehouse rave, confront Weems with a gun and learn that he only cooks specifically for one biker gang client. But Rust goes even further. It’s not just that he’s willing to put himself in the shit again. Rust’s palpable excitement about being illegally undercover as a means of getting a bargaining chip on the way to Reggie Ledoux says a lot about his fragile mental state.
Plot-wise, not a whole lot gets accomplished as the show arrives at the midpoint of this story. Especially after the cliffhanger from two weeks ago, this is a big statement that True Detective is more about the people solving the crime than the crime being solved. But if what Charlie says about Reggie’s prison ranting is true—-a wooded area where rich men sacrifice women and children in devil worship-—then Rust and Marty are going to need the kind of unhinged commitment to gaining the upper hand on scruples of information they showed in the action sequences tonight. And if they’re headed through a lot more darkness to get their man, it goes a long way toward explaining why Rust looks so hollowed-out in the present-day interview scenes.
- •It really was just one epic six-minute take, no digital stitching, according to the director.
- •Hart, in response to Cohle’s “we have work to do” speech at a bar after he intervenes at the hospital: “You are like the Michael Jordan of being a son of a bitch.”
- •That’s Grinderman’s “Honey Bee (Let’s Fly To Mars)” over the closing credits. T. Bone Burnett is a fantastic music supervisor, and Nick Cave’s howling perfectly summed up the energy of that final scene.
- • Watch HBO’s behind-the-scenes video with extra tidbits on the long take. It’s quite incredible.
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