Try not to judge Vinci PD detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) when he shakes down his own son for the name of a schoolyard bully, coercing the info by calling him a “fat pussy.” Ray’s merely projecting. After all, he just finished roughing up an innocent newspaper reporter at the behest of his own personal bully, local mob thug Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), who helped Ray locate his wife’s rapist years earlier and has been calling in favors ever since. Similar consideration is advised when encountering local sheriff Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), who’d prefer her sister Athena (Leven Rambin) be off the wagon rather than soberly pursue a porn career. Truth is, Ani’s got a drinking issue and likes to think her job is a righteous cover for personal failings.
But in True Detective executive producer Nic Pizzolatto’s world of urbane crime and corruption, everyone’s playing a part, making greater Los Angeles the perfect symbol and setting for their stories. Frank’s wife Jordan (Kelly Reilly) assures her husband that power suits him, even though he can’t stop second-guessing the venue he rented out to pitch city muckety-mucks on a high-speed California rail system, à la the East Coast’s Acela Express (or, if you prefer, Campbell Scott’s Seattle Supertrain from Singles). Meanwhile, highway motorcycle patrolman Paul Woodrugh’s (Taylor Kitsch's) girlfriend thinks he’s a perma-erect macho man with irresistible mystique, when in reality, he needs half an hour in the bathroom and some Viagra to get hard and considers suicide after his boss puts him on administrative leave. (Dudes and their bikes.) Even Vinci city manager Ben Caspere, who’s supposed to be the credible face of Frank’s light-rail presentation, has gone missing, leading Velcoro and his partner Teague Dixon (W. Earl Brown) on an investigation that uncovers Caspere’s apparent predilection for extreme sexual kink. (Whatever floats your weird naked lady in a bowl of milk.) In fact, the only new face we come across in “Western Book of the Dead” with what seems like nothing to hide is Ani and Athena’s father, Eliot (David Morse, distractingly recognizable in shamanistic dress), a shameless spiritual guru at full peace with his contradictions.
Although this being True Detective, Eliot may possess insight into more than just personal enlightenment. He may even be able to help his daughter shed light on how Vera, a maid at his Panticapaeum institute, disappeared without so much as a word to her family within the last month. If it suits him. For now, Ani’s got bigger concerns, like working with Velcoro and Woodrugh to ascertain how and why Caspere’s corpse, eyes freshly melted down, is dead and perched on a bench alongside the Pacific Coast Highway. Woodrugh shouldn’t even be there, really, but the poor lug literally stumbled on the high-profile victim after skidding off the road while playing chicken with the gods atop his bike. Now, though, as fate would determine, he’s in the thick of it.
This latest incarnation of Pizzolatto’s anthology is the kind of show where characters in touch with their mortality speak directly and with purpose. Guys like Frank sum up their moral code with plainspoken decisiveness, e.g., “Some things don’t stand.” Velcoro, obstinate with his custody-case attorney (the always-welcome Molly Hagan, who, along with Earl Brown, is weirdly one of two actors who memorably appeared in a single episode of Rectify just prior to this Detective season), professes, “I welcome judgment.” Pressured by her boyfriend to affirm that they’re in a good place, Ani can only comfort him with, “Depends on what’s expected.” Ani, Ray, and Paul in particular want to be punished even more than to punish those whom it’s their job to put in handcuffs. With Frank, his motives are a little less transparent. He could be strong and silent, or more the guy who falls apart and smashes glasses against the wall when he’s left to look at himself in the mirror. Either way, it takes some time to reconcile that Vaughn won’t be cracking wise at wearying sots like the mayor, who’d be prime candidates for a patented Vince cackle and cut-down in one of his earlier comedies.
Even more so than last season, there’s very little to laugh about 60 minutes into this several-hour journey. Unless, like me, you’re the kind of viewer who can’t help but admire the audacity of having Velcoro caution his son’s bully that he’ll “come back and butt-fuck your father with your mom’s headless corpse” as the kid’s dad lay bloody and nearly unconscious on their suburban front steps. This True Detective introduces us to ostensible protagonists even further removed from their humanity than Rust Cohle or Marty Hart, with that much more work to do if there’s a chance at redemption. It’s a lot like casework. It’s about starting with what we know — Paul’s scars, Ray’s temper and addictions, Frank’s melancholy, and Ani’s contradictory self-preserving and self-destructive impulses — peeling it back to see what’s underneath, and figuring out how much meaning can be salvaged from this mess. It’s a lot like getting to the bottom of how Caspere’s body turned up on that bench (and, if not unrelated, why Vera’s is still unaccounted for). Maybe it was so our four central persons of interest could be forced into circumstances that required acting with conviction rather than simply talking tough. Or perhaps it’s because bad people do bad things and end up dead, and even the urbane and oceanic sprawl of California gets smaller and smaller the more you withdraw from the world. Or, as Frank’s wife Jordan observes most succinctly, “Everybody gets touched.”
Apart from all that:
- Loved those gritty, industrial shots of the city with that clanging score. Reminded me of Day of the Dead Romero or Prince of Darkness Carpenter.
- License plates seem to be a thing (I learned my lesson from the Bates Motel finale). The guys transporting Caspere's reads 2PCE109, while Ani’s is 2ITA333.
- That’s a pretty unconvincing annunciation of “straight … edge,” Athena.
- Pretty sure that’s how Morse’s villain from Disturbia would have wound up had he survived and been in prison.
- Best I could make out, the Panticapaeum motto read, “irae autem tacere, in die novissimo.” My attempts to translate were rather impotent.
- The California high-speed rail being a thing is a thing.
- I did enjoy the trickery of that bar scene with Vaughn and Farrell.
- Though, man, that few minutes had a lot of facial acting from all parties.
- Will be interesting to see how Frank and Ray’s relationship evolves now that the former needs the latter.
- Nick Cave clamoring over the end credits sounds about right.
- And in case you were wondering who that lady playing in the bar was …