Noir and Nihilism in True Detective

Here is an excerpt from my critical essay on HBO’s recent hit, True Detective, forthcoming on the Quarterly Conversation.

I will post a link to the full article when it’s been published!


‘The fact that life has no meaning is a reason to live¬––moreover, the only one.’
––E. M. Cioran

‘When God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.’
––Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

‘It’s just one story. The oldest…Light versus dark.’ Spanning 8 episodes between January and March of 2014, HBO’s runaway hit True Detective challenged the status quo of contemporary crime drama. The show has been widely celebrated for its philosophy, complexity, and visual aesthetic. Co-starring Hollywood actors Matthew McConaughey as Rustin ‘Rust’ Cohle, and Woody Harrelson as Martin ‘Marty’ Hart, the show stands amongst The Wire and The Sopranos as one of HBO’s most powerful realist dramas. True Detective’s writer and producer Nick Pizzolatto is a Louisiana-born novelist, author of Galveston, many short stories, and has screenwriter credits that include episodes of the American adaptation of The Killing.

What sets the show apart from its contemporaries is Pizzolatto’s use of deeply philosophical and literary references, often obscure, to drive and complicate the otherwise simple plot of two detectives pursuing a child abuse ring. I will be exploring how the relationship with these elements, in conjunction with conventions of classic noir, neo-noir, and southern gothic, make it a truly individual depiction of the horror of human behaviour. Particular attention will be given to Pizzolatto’s representations of nihilistic and pessimistic philosophy––both theoretical and literary––as essential to the show’s style and narrative, primarily using Mark Conard’s anthologies The Philosophy of Film Noir and The Philosophy of Neo-Noir, Freidrich Nietzsche and Emil Cioran’s nihilist philosophies, and Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.

Framing True Detective in the context of cinematic and literary genres is beneficial in illustrating how preceding films and texts helped form the show’s unique but intentionally referential style and aesthetic, especially with regards to the strong philosophical tone. The show has been described variously as a neo-noir, southern gothic and supernatural detective thriller, all of which are simultaneously accurate and insufficient analogies. I will begin by discussing True Detective’s intricate weaving of generic tropes, and how they interact with philosophical thought.

In his foreword to Conard’s The Philosophy of Film Noir, Robert Porfirio describes the genre as encapsulating the ‘dark strain of American culture,’ with Conard himself going on to define the characteristic ‘general mood of dislocation and bleakness,’ and ‘inversion of traditional values and the loss of the meaning of thingsat the heart of the noir mood or tone of alienation, pessimism, and cynicism.’ The classic noir period is identified as 1941 to 1958, significantly falling between America’s involvement in WWII and the subsequent years of recovery. For many during this time, perspectives of the world were changed irrevocably, perhaps feeling the ‘world (to be) senseless and chaotic’ with ‘no transcendent meaning or value to human existence’[1]. Existential dread and nihilism crept into everyday thought, referring back to the heyday of existentialism in early 20th century France as a reaction to the ‘death of God,’ which influenced, albeit indirectly, noir cinema of the post-war years.

True Detective is situated in a very different historical period; the show moves between three temporal locations–1995, 2002 and almost present-day. However, there is a sense of timelessness. For example, unlike many cop shows, technology does not play a big part, as most of the detective work is done on outdated computers or by going through paperwork, smartphones are markedly absent, and there is no spying technology or advanced weaponry. The only events that date these narratives are Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, highly significant to the geographic location. The overall effect is that of detachment from contemporary anxieties exacerbated by fears of foreign and homeland terrorism, drone surveillance, computer hacking, and the horrors of the deep web. The focus instead is on more age-old horrors, such as child abuse, abduction and murder.

Hart and Rust are old-fashioned detectives, more like the protagonists of noir films than the slick cops of modern television and film. As mentioned above, the crimes they are concerned with are also timeless. The fears that engulf both men are primal, and the alienation and disorientation they feel echo that of classic noir films such as The Lady from Shanghai, with Welles’ socially dislocated Michael O’Hara, or any number of those starring lonely private eyes, morally corrupt and romantically crippled. The setting, Louisiana, is starkly different to Los Angeles––the classic location for noir cinema––but its bleakness, poverty, lawlessness and desolation mimic the stereotype of California’s largest city. Louisiana, with its state abbreviation of ‘LA,’ stands in for the city of LA in the 40’s and 50’s, rather than the advanced metropolis we know today, infamous for violence, plastic surgery and celebrity drama. In the first episode, Cohle describes a town they visit as ‘like somebody’s memory of a town, and the memory’s fading,’ a statement that could easily be applied to every place they go. For Cohle, the darkness that pervades their environment transcends Louisiana and engulfs the earth, or, as he describes our world, a ‘giant gutter in outer space’ (Episode 1, The Long Bright Dark).

Jerold Abrams states that ‘beyond the mere simplicity of whodunit, what is really uncovered in all great film noir is a world in which far more questions about the darkness of human nature remain fundamentally unanswered.’[2] This could not be more applicable to True Detective; even when Hart and Cohle catch their killer, both know full well that they’ve only stopped one bad man in a world of bad men. In Episode 3, The Locked Room, Hart asks Rust ‘Do you ever wonder if you’re a bad man?’ to which Cohle replies ‘The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.’ When the two reunite after their fight with Errol Childress, Cohle comments ‘We didn’t get ‘em all,’ with Hart pointing out what they both know–‘We ain’t gonna get ‘em all. That ain’t what kind of world it is’ (Episode 8, Form and Void). Although Rust concludes the series with his changed perspective that ‘the light’s winning,’ the more general message is that the world remains unknowable, shadowed in horror. While many noir and neo-noir films end in death, for others a ‘happy ending’ is not riding off into the sunset, but living to see another sunset­––seen in Welles’ Touch of Evil, Hitchcock’s Notorious, Polanski’s Chinatown­ and Altman’s The Long Goodbye. For these protagonists, survival trumps happiness.

Cohle and Hart are exemplars of film noir’s most ubiquitous leading man––the detective––each inhabiting different sides of that character. Hart is the weaker of the two: emotionally fragile, driven by fear of emasculation and sexual desire. Cohle is the ‘hardboiled detective:’ wallowing in deep existential crisis, pessimistic, nihilistic, and emotionally detached. Importantly, both are ‘everyman’ characters–­–although often behaving abhorrently, ultimately likeable and relatable. Abrams describes the typical noir hero as ‘a man of few words–although, when he does speak, he’s witty and waxes deadpan innuendo about the evils of the human soul, as if it’s everyday’––describing Cohle to a T––and for this man, ‘women are trouble in his world, sleek and dangerous, beautiful and deadly’–­–Hart’s biggest weakness being his libido. Both are trapped inside their personal crises, possessed by fear and anxiety, while inhabiting a world that does nothing but exacerbate this.

With regards to the show’s elements of cinematic southern gothic, the landscape and bleakness are evocative of Terrence Malick’s Badlands, which critic Dave Kehre described as ‘breathtaking both in its sweep and in its banality’[3]. The occult theme is reminiscent of Alan Parker’s voodoo detective thriller Angel Heart, and its depictions of back-woods violence of John Boorman’s Deliverance. The Southern gothic tradition uses macabre events to evaluate the often problematic values and cultural character of the South; gothic elements are employed to explore social issues, rather than as fantastical shock and suspense. A recurring element of the genre is the rural community; often ‘backward,’ old-fashioned and ‘hillbilly’ in nature, used to denote something sinister and threatening. Pizzolatto uses this to great effect in the scenes at Reggie Ledoux’s meth lab, and later at Childress’s ramshackle plantation house. These characters’ redneck nature is emphasized as a source of their ‘evil,’ nurtured by generations of abusive figures just like them or worse.

[1] Nietzsche and the Meaning and Definition of Noir in The Philosophy of Film Noir

[2] From Sherlock Holmes to the Hard-Boiled Detective in Film Noir in The Philosophy of Film Noir



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