"True Detective": Haunted cops hunt scary killer in the bayou

Woody Harrelson (left) and Matthew McConaughey play homicide detectives who are questioned in 2012 about their investigation of a serial killer in 1995.

Something wicked this way comes. And it will take you unawares.

In True Detective (9 p.m. Sunday on HBO), Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson play dissimilar Louisiana homicide detective partners tracking a spooky serial killer.

Then again, being too much like McConaughey's Rustin "Rust" Cohle is not something to be wished on anyone. He's a blighted mix of cynical and mystical, an insomniac and a drunk, holding on to his sobriety with white knuckles.

Intense as a coiled snake, Rust can make even smoking a cigarette look like an act of aggression. And he chain smokes.

It's a brooding, masterful performance by McConaughey. And Harrelson stays with him step for step in an unusually layered and subtle turn as Martin Hart. He's a good ol' boy who's sharper than he lets on, a guy with two darling daughters and a beautiful wife (Michelle Monaghan), whom he's cheating on.

Both the detectives' lives change when they are called to a ritualized murder scene in a remote cane field. The victim's body is arranged in much the same pagan sacrificial fashion as the victims in the first few episodes of NBC's Hannibal.

The narrative is split between Rust and Martin being separately interviewed in 2012 by police about the old case and flashbacks to the original investigation in 1995. (I can't imagine that real cops would encourage them to rattle on so discursively, but it works for the show.)

Rust, it emerges, has flashbacks of his own. Before transferring to Louisiana, he spent four years as a deep undercover narcotics officer. A little too deep.

Maybe that explains his odd perspective. Taking in the view from a parking lot, he says, "This place is like someone's memory of a town. And the memory's fading."

Hart, his face screwing up like he just bit into a lemon, responds, "Stop saying [stuff] like that."

What I meant about the malevolence of True Detective sneaking up on you is that the grip of this series is singular and unique. Even though nothing overtly scary or violent is happening on the screen, the tension grows unbearable. Watching it, you feel like you're rapidly circling a drain, being pulled into the deep and dark.

Maybe it's the foreboding way director Cary Fukunaga lights and shoots the eight episodes. Even the landscapes seem menacing. And the locals are creepy. But the monster doesn't even emerge from his cave until the very end of the third installment.

This is a remarkably cohesive and atmospheric series with a fine supporting cast, including Kevin Dunn, Clarke Peters, and Boardwalk Empire's Shea Whigham with a wild Elvis hairdo.

True Detective is designated as an anthology, which means that any subsequent seasons would feature different casts and different crimes. They'll have big Hush Puppies to fill.



True Detective

Premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO