HBO’s creepy crime drama returns after a five-year hiatus, swapping up Southern gothic for Arctic horror.
“True Detective” was never known for its sweet moments, but “True Detective: Night Country” — the show’s fourth season after a five-year break — presents an especially harsh view of the human condition. However, there is a point late in the six-episode season when the dour pop soundtrack becomes nostalgic, and it is evident that we are meant to be profoundly moved by what is going on. Someone is disposing of the dismembered body of a close family member who they have just killed.
The new season, produced and mostly scripted by Mexican filmmaker Issa López (which begins on Sunday), avoids poetry in favour of a more straightforward approach. However, if Pizzolatto’s “True Detective” books were fundamentally standard noirs with a gloss of pop psychology and horror-movie sensationalism, López devotes himself entirely to the bizarre and supernatural. Parricide? That is just coming up for air.
López is ambiguous about whether the cops, scientists, mine workers, and Indigenous Alaskans in her story are dealing with malicious spirits, but she overuses horror effects to shock the audience and drive the plot. Unseen voices abound, and deceased persons are commonly seen. Polar bears loom in the gloom. Oranges inexplicably come out of nowhere and roll under the players’ feet. A bunch of guys freeze together in a jumble, naked and screaming, and must be cut from the ice and slowly thawed under bright lights. (Somewhere, “The Thing” is wondering why it didn’t consider that.)
What caused the frozen men’s deaths is one of the incidents at the heart of “Night Country,” the other being the savage murder of a young Indigenous woman years ago. Two cops are investigating the two cases, whose link gradually becomes evident, and they despise each other, not in an amusing or bantering fashion, but with deep conviction.
Jodie Foster plays Danvers, the harsh police chief of the rural Alaska mining town where the narrative takes place, and Kali Reis plays Navarro, a determined state trooper. Both characters carry heavy burdens: family losses, problematic loved ones, wartime dread, and the disadvantages of being female and, in Navarro’s case, Indigenous. On top of that, they share a sad moment in their professional histories, a secret that, like many other things in the season, is constantly teased before being unceremoniously disclosed.
And they are not alone in their dysfunction; almost everyone in “Night Country” is beaten up, broken down, furious, or resentful. The saps are the exceptions: the preternaturally nice barman Qavvik (Joel D. Montgrand), whom Navarro uses for sex, and the puppy-dog constable Pete Prior (Finn Bennett), whom Danvers treats like a surrogate son and ruthlessly overworks. They are both caricatures of guys who are exceptional for being fundamentally decent, but Montgrand and Bennett make them credible and relatable. John Hawkes cannot do the same for Prior’s father, Hank, a casually corrupt cop excitedly awaiting the arrival of his internet fiancée from Vladivostok; he is a cartoon.
Arctic settings (the season was filmed in Iceland), shot with an emphasis on darkness and vast, empty landscapes, go hand in hand with eerie horror motifs; close comparisons include John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and the British series “Fortitude,” which covers some of the same ground as “Night Country” but in a more entertaining, less tiresome manner. López, with cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister’s assistance, uses those aspects in an evocative if confusing mystery that appears and feels, for a couple of episodes, like it might work its way to an interesting conclusion. But she can’t keep it under control — the mystery steadily dissolves into preposterousness, the characters sink into incoherence, and the horror isn’t original or evocative enough to carry things on its own.
The season succeeds, if only on the strength of its convictions, as a representation of cultural and economic depredation — environmental damage from the mine plays a role in the mystery, and the story’s resolution is better explained by issues and emotions than by evidence or character development.
That may make “Night Country” popular—an example of a rising genre known as virtue-noir—but it does not make it good. Pizzolatto’s overwriting became onerous, yet actors such as Matthew McConaughey, Taylor Kitsch, and Mahershala Ali were able to create compelling characters from it. López does not offer her actors anything to work with other than attitudes and poses.
Danvers, a protagonist and essentially a heroine, is at the centre of the busy but gloomy activities of “Night Country” and is almost comically rude and insensitive, and is loathed by practically everyone onscreen. (She’s a creation designed for our current political context, the barely redeemable Karen.) Against all difficulties, Foster finds methods to make Danvers appear human and even discovers glints of humour in her; how she achieves it is more mysterious than those men on the ice.