The Moment 'True Detective' Put Another Bullet In The Gut Of Cinema

The 6 minute tracking shot that laid down another marker for the small screen: why you should buy season 1 on DVD, out this week

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Warning: contains (small) spoiler from True Detectives episode four.

In a year when Hollywood enjoyed an unusually successful Oscars, it may be a little churlish to draw attention to a further example of how TV is overtaking its bigger brother. But we’re going to do it anyway.

Maybe you watched True Detective when it aired earlier this year, maybe you didn't. The nature of the modern small screen experience, as we’re constantly reminding ourselves, means you can do so at your own pace. But now series one is out on DVD, we recommend you invest in this mini masterpiece – if only for one landmark moment in particular.

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The first three and a half episodes of the Sky Atlantic series, about two partners investigating a serial killer, starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, quickly confirms it as one of the most compelling new dramas of TV’s golden age.

It’s a smart, gripping character study of two leads with complicated personal lives. McConaughey’s character, Rust, is a misanthropic Texan prone to nihilism (and drugs. Lots of drugs.) Harrelson’s Marty is a struggling family man espousing simple values he can barely manage to honour himself.

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Marty and Rust’s progression through the case is, at first, painfully slow, but you barely notice as you get to know them and their relationship. Refreshingly, it appears, this is an American cop show not afraid to take its time.

Then suddenly, with one, breathtaking scene, everything changes.

There are two main functions of the type of long tracking shot that has already made True Detective’s fourth episode famous among TV nerds. The first is obvious. Being with Rust for a full six minutes as he navigates a shoot out between rival drug gangs (no further spoilers, we promise) lends the scene energy and tension. The lack of cuts in the action pins you there with him as he turns every dangerous corner.

The second function of this difficult technique is as a statement of prowess from the director, and by extension, their actors.

The vision, planning and concentration required from Cary Joji Fukunaga and Matthew McConaughey to orchestrate a single take involving multiple characters and moments of action is a bit like a rapper flowing through the alphabet at warp speed or an artist drawing the perfect free hand circle. It’s a flex of mastery over the medium.

Cinema has been doing this for a long time, though rarely for six minutes at a time. In taking a directorial flourish that helped establish the likes of Martin Scorcese (Goodfellas), Theodoros Angelopoulos (Ulysses’ Gaze) and Alfonso Cuarón (Children Of Men) as masters of their craft – and doing it for longer – the TV show that has already poached two of Hollywood’s biggest stars is making an another bold statement in the on going critical tussle between the big screen and the small.

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It’s a well-established conceit that, ever since The Sopranos, TV has been conducting itself with greater confidence and ambition than ever before. But until recently, the argument has tended to focus on depth of character and scope of the plot – the script, in other words.

Now we’re into the next phase of TV’s evolution, defined by cinema-quality production values, technical achievement and direction.

Look at House Of Cards. The first series suggested that a TV show can look and feel just as atmospheric and iconic as Se7en, Fight Club or any of director David Fincher’s other career highlights. This year, the second series established the fact beyond doubt.

Where once the career trajectory of the world’s biggest directors and actors followed a well-worn path from small screen to big, today, the flow of talent goes both ways, whether it’s Fincher, Kevin Spacey or Scorsese himself making Boardwalk Empire.

There’s another reason why True Detective’s tracking shot feels so significant to the current era of TV.

Having already established it’s intellectual and emotional credentials, it was the show revealing it can also pull off high wire action sequences with aplomb with half the series already over – like a partner you’ve already fallen for casually announcing they’re also a millionaire six months in. It’s a dramatic shift that films, which tend to suffer rather than gain from having an uneven tone or pace, can rarely pull off, and a reminder of why TV’s ascension as the dominate visual art form of our times seems inevitable.

With all the hours we’re prepared to sit on our sofas compared to in a movie theatre, directors and writers have an almost infinitely bigger canvas on which to not only develop plots and characters, but play with our visual expectations and astound us. Year after year, show after show, they’re doing just that.


5 Of The Great Onscreen Tracking Shots:

Gun Crazy, 1950, Joseph H. Lewis


Paths Of Glory, 1957, Stanley Kurbrick

 

Goodfellas, 1990, Martin Scorcese

 

Ulysses' Gaze, 1995, Theodoros Angelopoulos
 


Panic Room, David Fincher, 2002