Exploring the Visual Style of ‘True Detective’

Tracking shot in ‘True Detective’, Episode 4, 2014

In this post I want to address the highly mesmerizing as well as conceptually loaded cinematography in the popular TV show ‘True Detective’ directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. This post was provoked by an epic six-minute tracking shot – appearing at the end of episode four – which is already being celebrated as a significant landmark in the history of Television. Rather than focussing on technical details or specific narratives explored in the plot, this post seeks to establish that the cinematography in ‘True Detective’ actively borrows from other forms of visual media and thus feeds into a larger discourse of representation.

Church set against industrial landscape in ‘True Detective’

Situated in the 1990s in Louisiana, ‘True Detective’ tells the story of two homicide detectives who, despite their obvious dislike for each other, become a successful tag-team in their mission to solve a series of occult-based killings. Right from the start it appears that the makers of ‘True Detective’ elected to use a carefully considered visual aesthetic where the two main characters, played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, are juxtaposed against the bleak industrial landscape of Louisiana. This juxtaposition between the plot and the landscape becomes a recurring motif such as in the depiction of a burnt out church or several other shots that show the detectives traversing across the state in their car.

Richard Misrach, from the series ‘Cancer Alley’, 1998

The strong emphasis on Louisiana’s industrial landscape in ‘True Detective’ evokes a comparison to Richard Misrach’s series of photographs titled ‘Cancer Alley’. In this series of works photographed in Louisiana in 1998, Misrach explored communities in abject poverty which are located in close vicinity to high pollution petrochemical industries. Misrach’s photographs clearly allude to the notion that a toxic industry has sucked all life out of nearby communities already struggling from extreme levels of poverty. In ‘True Detective’ the cinematography provokes a similar conclusion as the cooling towers and chimneys from Louisiana’s industrial belt always loom large over social deprivation and crime.

Little girl waving at Rustin Cohle in ‘True Detective’

Other scenes in ‘True Detective’ clearly indicate that the director Cary Joji Fukunaga is indebted to photography. There is, for instance, the brief moment when the character played by Matthew McConaughey, Rustin Cohle, gazes out of the car window and makes eye contact with a little girl as the car drives by. In this scene the camera assumes a subjective viewpoint (the viewpoint of the protagonist) to establish empathy with Cohle who lost his young daughter in traumatic circumstances. This subjective (and empathetic) viewpoint taken from the vantage point of a moving car is highly reminiscent of Paul Fusco’s classic photography book ‘Funeral Train’ – a beautiful series of photographs depicting mourners who pay their respects to Bob Kennedy in his post-humous journey across America.

Picture 21
Paul Fusco. from the photography book ‘Funeral Train’

In ‘True Detective’ the ugliness of crimes such as murder, rape, sexual violence, kidnapping and child abuse is, at times, set off against scenes shot with a keen eye for beauty. This is the case in another subjective viewpoint, shot through the detectives’ car front window as it approaches an illegal brothel hidden in between luscious trees. The framing of the scene through the car window creates a mise-en-scene that uncannily references Boticelli’s ‘Primavera’. As the car approaches, the girls present their bodies and pose for the two detectives. Even though the car is approaching them, it actually appears that the girls are approaching the car. It is a deeply ambiguous moment which only adds to the very strong (!) sexual undertones explored in the show.

A so-called bunny ranch in ‘True Detective’

Sandro Botticelli, Primavera, ca. 1482

On a number of levels ‘True Detective’ also appears to reference the visually stunning film ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ from 2012. Both are situated in remote communities in Louisiana, they both deal with poverty and social deprivation, yet they both also see beauty in an otherwise extremely chaotic environment. In addition to that, they both incorporate notions of magical realism as an optical tool that seeks to represent a sense of trauma. While Cohle’s hallucinations seen in ‘True Detective’ are the result of years of drug abuse, the main protagonist in ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ is a little girl who psychologically drifts into fictional environments purely for the sake of survival. In both instances, the camera does not simply depict the person experiencing the hallucination or fantasy, but rather, it actively incorporates this fantastical in the scene itself.

Magical realism in ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’, 2012

Magical realism in ‘True Detective’, 2014

While watching ‘True Detective’ the viewer increasingly gets the impression that Fukunaga and his team appear to follow a very distinct visual style. In comparison to other recent crime dramas such as ‘The Wire’ or even the much-celebrated TV Show ‘Breaking Bad’, this visual style is far more pronounced and for the lack of a better term photographic. What I mean by this term is that ‘True Detective’ is shot in a way that individual scenes appear to be strung together like a series of photographs. The care and attention towards constructing the images in ‘True Detective’ can be compared to the large scale tableaux painstakingly put together by the photographer Gregory Crewdson. The viewer is used to such a level of attention towards individual shots in cinema – yet such attention is rare for a TV show (to my knowledge the Australian TV show ‘The Slap’ is another exception). ‘True Detective’ is shot like a visual experience that does not simply support the plot, but it actually becomes the plot itself.

I would like to thank Clément Verger , Jonathan Hobin, Diana Schnelle-Perry and Jennifer Park for their contributions towards this post.

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