Thursday, February 27, 2014

Crime Alley: "True Detective", Female Characters, and the Art of Noir

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey
If you're in any way a lover of the crime genre or a lover of good television, you can hardly be unaware of the near rhapsodic buzz attached to HBO's latest entry into the "best television series of all time" sweepstakes True Detective.

The series follows two Louisiana detectives, Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) as they pursue a murder case and their own personal demons over a twenty year period. This first season is only eight episodes long, and was created by novelist and television writer Nic Pizzolatto, with every episode directed by Cary Fukunaga. The idea is that the series is an anthology where the format is the star, with each season being its own self-contained story with completely different characters and cases.

Since its debut the series has earned a huge amount of praise from critics and almost instantaneous ratings success and devotion from viewers. But, as with all things that start off beloved in this modern age, if you get too much praise to early, that sparks the inevitable backlash. In the case of True Detective, it's a recent furor over its depiction (or lack thereof) of complex female characters. I had heard it mentioned here and there ever since the show debuted, but a recent article in the New Yorker by Emily Nussbaum really clarified the argument. Willa Paskin at Slate took the opposing view, and it's a similarly good read.

Of course, what every one's wondering is, "When's a white male going to weigh in on this argument about misogyny?" Rest easy everyone. I'll provide this all-important viewpoint on a woman's issue right now.

This controversy actually highlights an important issue I see come up more and more when discussing drama these days, and that is audiences' seeming inability to separate depiction from endorsement. I'm not sure if modern audiences actually have a problem with this distinction, if we've fallen so far in our critical faculties that we actually can't identify the difference, or if this is a problem largely created by website articles and online forums. Take the flap over The Wolf of Wall Street, which was accused of endorsing the hedonistic lifestyle it depicted in the film. To my mind, anyone who sees that film clearly should come away from it with an understanding that the lives those characters lead is not healthy nor morally correct nor without significant cost. That doesn't mean they didn't have fun, and to be a truthful artist you have to show that side of it. But showing it doesn't mean endorsing it. Can we really no longer tell the difference?

True Detective is show that is locked on to the point of view of the its protagonists. The series is about Hart and Cohle and its very structure reinforces that we're experiencing their vision through  the use of the interrogation scenes. The attitude towards women in the series is not, to my mind , unconscious, but very definitely intentional. We as an audience are following two deeply flawed characters in a noir story, one of whom is a nihilist and the other an inveterate philanderer. Their world view in general is not healthy, nor is their view of women specifically. Additionally, the series is about them navigating through an ever-darkening underbelly and how this, and their own flaws, affect every part of their life.

Michelle Monaghan
Whether it's a novel, film or television series, what separates noir from other crime stories is its immersive quality. We aren't just seeing or investigating a crime being committed. We're seeing the world from the point of view of characters trapped by their own sins and flaws until they are literally undone. You just keep paying for your sins in a noir story, and the world shown is a reflection of that. These characters have no perspective on these sins, they are in fact consumed by their weaknesses in the end. So, yeah, we don't spend a lot of time fleshing out the ancillary characters. But it's not just the women, we don't spend time fleshing out any of the other characters. Quick, give me the character names of the two cops interviewing Hart and Cohle. Now do it without hitting IMDB.

Hart and Cohle are not paragons the audience is supposed to look to as an ideal. They are damaged goods through which we are supposed to recognize the uglier parts of our own lives. We're not watching noble crime-fighters who are morally outraged by these crimes. We're watching obsessed men with substantial problems motivated by their own selfish reasons, that's what makes it a noir. Since The Sopranos, we've been confronted with ever more anti-heroes as the lead characters in drama, from Don Draper to Walter White to Nucky Thompson to Jimmy McNulty. None of them are characters we're supposed to idolize. Identify with? To some degree, but I'd argue that not one of the show runners in those series are encouraging audiences to share the world view of these characters. And these flaws are more than evident, they're the foundation upon which all meaningful drama is built.

Frankly, Hart and Cohle have major issues when it comes to women. Part of it is the result of their job, part of it is the result of their own demons, but for better or worse, these are the guys this show is about. Hart is clearly a misogynist, and the series is in no way shy about stating that. He's not capable of relating to women in a healthy way, as we are shown in every single relationship he has in the series. And that's a problem a lot of men have. Their depiction of Hart's flaw doesn't equal an endorsement, in fact I don't see how you can see it as anything other than a character defect, and an ugly one at that.

Hart's wife Maggie is played by Michelle Monaghan, a great actress who has really injected a lot of depth into her role. Some commentators have described her as filling the "long-suffering wife" role in this series. To some degree, that's fair. But, I'd argue there's a lot more going on with her than a casual view suggests, and it's not all down to the acting. with Hart and Cohle being our POV characters, we aren't given a view into her thoughts, but take the recent scene where, after an estrangement from Hart, she watches him roller skate with their young daughters. You can see her make the decision to reconcile with him in the scene, seeing that even if he may not have anything to offer her, Hart does have something to offer her kids. And she will admit there were good years after that. But in a later scene, we watch Hart sit in a chair, eating pasta and alienating his now teen aged daughters to the point where they both leave the room. And right there is where we see her make up her mind to take control and end this marriage. There's no explosive dialogue yet, that comes in a later scene, but the whole subtext in the scene is about Hart's treatment of the women in his life, and Monaghan plays that subtext wonderfully, showing a woman quietly come to a decision about her own life.

At the end of the day, one of the things that makes a noir story resonate so deeply is that in other crime stories these flaws would serve to illustrate our difference from, and therefore superiority over, a character. In noir, and in the world of True Detective, there is no comfortable distance. By sticking so closely to these characters' point of view, we are forced to admit their humanity and therefore admit there's some kinship between their weaknesses and our own. How you as an audience member deals with that is up to you, but the value of noir is not its realism or its fairness. Its in the way it seduces you into admitting we're all built as much by our vices as by our virtues.

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