HIS VISION, HER BODY:
On Noir, Masculinity and True Detective
by Angelica Jade Bastién
In the first episode of True Detective, Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) looks upon the body of murder victim Dora Lange. Her body has been positioned like a piece of art, hunched over, with stark white antlers affixed to her head. A strange symbol marks her back. As Rust looks at her, he says, “His vision. Her body.” A woman’s body is never really hers, is it? The female body is an object to be adorned or scorned. It is a canvas for the fear of female sexual power. While there have been wonderful examples of dynamic, diverse women in film noir, the more I look at today’s noir the more I see the message that a woman’s body is not hers to define.
Taking place over a 17-year span, True Detective splices three time lines (1995, 2002, 2012) centered on an investigation into a possible serial murderer. The show focuses upon Rust, his partner Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and, to a lesser extent, Martin’s wife, Maggie (Michelle Monaghan). The popularity of the show doesn’t surprise me. It feeds into our collective desire for auteurship, shared by writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga, who, in an almost unheard-of move, respectively wrote and directed each episode. The internal mythology of the show, which harkens to the weird fiction/cosmic horror of writers like Robert Chambers and H. P. Lovecraft, is fascinating but it isn’t one of the main reasons why I find myself so attracted to the show. At first glance, True Detective is like many mystery shows we’ve seen in the past: full of the exposed flesh of beautiful women, violence both intimate and anonymous in its horror, and fantastical crime scenes with the overheated surroundings of rural Louisiana giving it an almost painterly quality. The women are slack-jawed whores, quietly suffering wives, and doppelgänger mistresses. But True Detective isn’t a mystery; it is a noir keenly plunging into the frightening depths of consumptive masculinity, the damning effects of religion to the Southern mindset, and the ways in which women are silenced and ignored. Unfortunately, reading the conversations around True Detective I have noticed a few glaring missteps in the criticism: lack of southern perspective, quick judgment, a myopic obsession about The Yellow King, and a complete misunderstanding of noir.
It has been said before that you can find all of noir in Humphrey Bogart’s face. The deep lines of his skin are a roadmap to a life hard won and harder lived. His eyes hold the sadness of the entire world around him. There is anger and vengeance and longing in the way he holds himself or looks at a woman. But his face doesn’t complete the picture of what constitutes noir. What you can’t find in Bogart’s face you can find in Bette Davis’s. Her eyes, fantastical in their largess, could communicate yearning, desire, or most pronouncedly, anger. The way she punctuates her sentences with a lightly held cigarette can communicate either violence or a come-on. Her mouth is like an upturned bow that can be unraveled with a curse or a whisper. The problem with modern noir is that it tends to forget the legacy of women like Bette Davis, who played dynamic characters that used violence as an act of independence becoming more transgressive than that of the men they played against.
Most people don’t know what the fuck they are talking about when they talk about noir. Noir is undoubtedly a genre. Not a style. Not an atmosphere. Not an excuse to stylize your dialogue to the point of empty, florid poeticism. Noir isn’t inherently sexist and to say so ignores the history of women who shaped noir since its inception. But it is a well-defined genre with a set of narrative constructions. So, let’s set the record straight. “Noir” has become cultural shorthand for anything black and white, vaguely moody and heavily stylized. In truth, it spans far beyond those parameters. Noir is chimeral and dream-like. It is that black, yawning abyss we tell ourselves not to fall into. It is the dark mirror we are afraid to gaze upon. In noir, the monsters are human, the monsters are us.
The opening credits of True Detective display moody, sepia-toned silhouettes made up of not only the faces of its actors, but the Louisiana setting—its road maps, refinery plants, and abandoned churches. The nudity of the women in the opening is not alluring; it is sad and grimy. The bodies of women are positioned as part of the landscape. Dora Lange, crowned and thrust upon antlers, is the first and starkest example of this. Her skin sallow, her body stripped, she seems as a part of the environment as the tree in front of her. When we meet the prostitutes who knew her in episode two on the ranch, they seem like fragile fixtures blending into the green and brown of the swampy scenery around them. If the show took place anywhere else it would be vastly different. Rural, southern Louisiana becomes its own character.
Like southern gothic, noir is obsessed with archetypes: the Femme Fatale, the Stalwart Detective. Thematically, noir tends to revolve around the same subjects. Identity, violence, desire as tragedy, for example, all of which are important to True Detective. Visual motifs reflect these themes. Think of the preoccupation with mirror images, characters as doppelgängers or reflections of each other. In True Detective, Martin and Rust exist as different sides of modern masculinity. As for doppelgängers, Martin’s mistresses are all younger versions of Maggie. True Detective is actually one of the few recent productions labeled as noir that understands the genre. Despite what director Cary Fukunaga has said, True Detective is noir, not “heightened realism.” In fact, True Detective has proven how important and relevant noir still is. The main characters are very much situated in this landscape each wearing masks, lying to themselves, and fighting against an oppressive regime.
On the surface, Martin represents order. He abides by the tenets of masculinity that seem to be from some foregone era. But Pizzolatto quickly asserts that Martin is an asshole of epic proportions. His wife and children are not people to him but objects to justify his sense of self and to reign over. His anger and obsessive control of the women around him echoes that of Kirk Douglas in films like Ace in the Hole (1951) and Out of the Past (1947). When we see Martin’s life beyond the interrogation-of-sorts that frames the first six episodes of the show’s 2012 timeline, we discover his family is much better off without him. He leads an impotent life lit by the dull glow of his laptop while he scrolls for dates on Match.com and picks at TV dinners.
Rust is the crown jewel of the show, continuing a long line of fascinating characters Matthew McConaughey has been playing, all of which are meditations on what it means to be a man in present-day society. Rust is the chaos to Martin’s veneer of order. He drops thick, literary monologues as poetic as they are harrowing with the casualness of someone talking about the weather. Maggie describes him aptly: “Rust knew exactly who he was, and there was nothing talking him out of it.” But his self-destructive, myopically heroic, and vulnerable nature contradict the nihilism of his monologues. Rust’s problem is not that he doesn’t feel anything, it’s that he feels too much. He is a walking wound. His 2012 incarnation is that of a functional alcoholic leading a life marked by a lack of human interaction nourished only by the obsessive need to discover the truth behind the conspiracy that frames Dora Lange’s murder. Rust and Martin operate as mirror images of each other. Chaos vs Order. Relinquishing of Desire for Higher Ideals vs Giving into Base Desires. Hate of Self vs Hate of Others.
Noir in the 1940s tended to juxtapose the love of a “good” woman with the lusty machinations of a femme fatale. These “good” women were usually the wives or girlfriends of a detective. Or they were simply women who got pulled down into the darkness by the men in their orbit. They usually didn’t have the snappy lines, fabulous wardrobes, or sense of autonomy of the femme fatales they came across. Maggie, who rounds out the main characters, is, at first glance, the latest in a long line of “good” beleaguered wives that pepper the margins of noir. But she is by far the most emotionally intelligent character in the series. Maggie eventually gets much more to do in a few of the later episodes. Her most fascinating moment is when it’s revealed she had sex with Rust to force Martin toward a divorce. But most of the credit should be given to the actress who brings her to life. Monaghan is a wonderful presence: warm and inviting but with a steely intelligence underneath. Without an actress of her caliber, Maggie wouldn’t work. In Maggie (and her eldest daughter) we see an intimate look at what happens when the violence of men creeps into the home.
To understand True Detective’s place in the noir canon, you have to understand the way noir has changed on our screens. The noir of the 1940s was populated with men and women trying to find a piece of happiness or power and willing to kill to get it. It is the style of this period that people most associate with the genre. The 1940s were full of dynamic, sexually-charged situations that subverted the Hays Code with thick subtext. Throughout the 1940s, women were important to the genre, in front of and behind the camera. Characters played by actresses like Barbara Stanwyck and Gloria Grahame were just as important with communicating the themes of desire and vengeance as men were. By the 1950s noir looked beyond the dark side of the urban milieu to say that darkness can exist in all of us, anywhere. Think of Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and Clash by Night (1952). Both noir, both with a wildly different perspective, both with twists on the archetypes of the genre. With the fall of the studio system came the fall of larger-than-life female characters. Although the 1980s and early 1990s brought back the femme fatale, she had changed. While she seemed even more central to the narrative and survived (unlike most of her predecessors), the price of this survival was her soul. These revamped femme fatales in films like Body Heat (1983) and Basic Instinct (1992) seemed less like people and more like exercises of genre, automatons of obsessive need.
Coming closer to the present day, noir continues to be evoked implicitly and explicitly. Rian Johnson’s Looper (2012) is an exercise in pastiche melding the literary dexterity of Dashiell Hammett with the cyberpunk stylings of Blade Runner (1982). That said, Looper displays a future in which all women are either mothers or whores. Christopher Nolan’s oeuvre, while not completely defined by noir, is indebted to the genre’s beginnings but lacks the narrative cohesion, social critique, and even the slightest interest in women. Early episodes seemed to prove that Pizzolatto cared about the gender anxiety and rage that other modern filmmakers like these ignore when playing around with noir.
In the third episode during the 1995 timeline, we witness how deep Martin’s insecurity and territorial nature goes as he becomes enraged with Rust mowing his lawn and being around his wife without him home. The most telling exchange occurs a bit later between Maggie and Martin after they talk to their eldest daughter about why she drew a series of lewd, sexually graphic images at school. The conversation between Martin and Maggie afterwards proved that Pizzolatto is an intelligent writer and furthered the idea that the show was keenly interested in the dynamics between men and women in a world dominated by darkness.
“She’s just trying to get the attention of the other girls… Jesus. How do they even know about that stuff yet?” Martin asks after Maggie voices her concern.
“Girls always know before boys,” she replies sternly.
“Why is that?”
“Because they have to.“
The dynamics in this episode echo a long line of classic noir that framed masculine power in a critical way. It holds up a mirror to our culture and asks, “This is what you condone? Is this what a modern man should be?” By placing these characters in a very specific Southern context, Pizzolatto is able to further the themes of noir in a fresh way. I don’t think it is a coincidence True Detective takes place in rural, southern Louisiana: a region that almost seems situated out of time, where the mores of power and gender clash on various levels and are heavily influenced by religion.
In the second episode, there is a very telling moment between Martin and a madam, Jan (Andrea Frankle), at the prostitute ranch where the two detectives look for more information about Dora Lange. Martin becomes outraged at the presence of an underage prostitute named Beth (Lili Simmons). Martin argues with Jan about not only hiring the young girl but what all the women in the ranch represent. Jan sees right through him. She tells Martin he has no idea of Beth’s circumstances, what she’s left behind, and besides, “Girls walk this earth all the time screwing for free. So why is it you add business to the mix and boys like you can’t stand that thought? Because suddenly you don’t own it the way you thought you did.” Still disgusted, Martin hands Beth money and tells her, “Do something else.” Afterwards, Rust asks Martin if he was making “a down payment.”
This moment is especially infuriating when episode six rolls around and we see Beth again years later in 2002. The moment she reappeared, I knew Martin was going to fuck her. She repeats fictions he wants to believe about himself: “You’re a good man. I knew that when I first saw you.” Furthermore, she falls into the same visual pattern of women who resemble younger versions of his wife. Watching these gender dynamics brings back memories of my childhood in the South: a childhood marked by oppressive religiosity and domestic violence.
My mother’s family is from Iberia Parish, Louisiana. Some of my most vivid childhood memories are weighed by the area’s oppressive summer heat, the chorus of insects, its echoing Bible verses. True Detective shows how important religion is to this part of the country. Even when you divorce yourself from it, it still surrounds you. While True Detective’s themes are accessible to anyone, it is clear the show is keen to dissect the modes of masculinity unique to the South. The show bleakly displays the consequences of women and men who don’t measure up to the unspoken rules of their culture. Rust may be intelligent and intimidating with his slightly hollow cheeks, Texan drawl, and inky blue eyes but he does not measure up to the local men around him.
Rust is situated outside of the norms of Southern masculinity in several ways: his nihilistic proclamations and poetic manner of speaking; his lack of ties to the community in the form of family; and his complete inability to give even the slightest fuck about rules. Also, being from Texas plays a role in his outsider status. Despite what people think, the South isn’t some conforming mess of gumbo, thick accents, and Biblical fever. Texas isn’t Southern the way Louisiana is Southern. In many ways, Texas isn’t really situated in the South at all. Texans are different beasts, with different values and preoccupations, some of which overlap, many of which do not. Whenever Martin brings up Rust’s Texan roots, it sounds akin to an insult. Rust represents the Other. To the local men in power Rust is almost as foreign and undeserving of respect as women. In this way, Rust reminds me of Humphrey Bogart in his best role as screenwriter Dixon Steele in the 1950 noir In A Lonely Place. Both characters are philosophical and wounded. They are outside the norm because they bristle against the mode of masculinity necessary to blend in with the world around them.
True Detective also falls in line with a recent trend of noir-inspired television—Top of the Lake and The Fall—in treating the patriarchy as the show’s dark force and villain that influences the cultural landscape and the individuals that populate it. The shows don’t share much else beyond this key point but it is interesting to compare all three in terms of their depiction of femininity, masculinity, and all the violence in between within the context of the shifting landscape of prestige television. In True Detective, women are ignored, abused, and victimized in a society that doesn’t have much regard for them. Pizzolatto crafts a very specific and horrific social critique. But there have been a few small moments that could have been expanded to involve the women that make up True Detective’s universe while still feeding into the main story.
In episode five, Martin discovers his teenaged daughter in the back of a car fooling around with two boys. We don’t see how this actually goes down, but we see the aftermath. He has his daughter explain to Maggie the circumstances of the evening. Maggie is angry but we can see she is more worried about what is leading her daughter to seek out these situations. On the other hand, Martin’s misogyny is on full display when he calls his daughter a slut and forcefully slaps her. She runs into her bedroom and locks the door. When Maggie goes to her daughter’s door, I wanted to see the door open and witness a one-on-one conversation between them. It is the intimate violence like this in True Detective that cuts the deepest. Without the perspective of even just one conversation on navigating Martin’s anger between the women in his family, the repeated violence starts to ring hollow. The final two episodes jettisons these dynamics of misogyny and southern-fried noir for a more straight procedural, dominated by moldy clichés we have seen in far less literary serial killer thrillers which ends up breaking the show’s own internal logic.
What becomes undeniable in the finale is that Martin and Rust, for all their personal growth didn’t learn much about society’s (and their own) mistreatment of women. The violence men commit against women gets lost in the shuffle of this grand conspiracy and white trash horror-fest in the final episodes. This raises the question: why exactly was Rust so obsessed with the conspiracy beyond Dora Lange’s murder?
For Rust it is about a moral obligation. The idea that children would continue to be brutalized if he didn’t do something is a fact he could never live with. This is especially true in light of the specter of his young dead daughter, who hangs over Rust’s life, until he seems to come to peace with her in the finale. But what about when those little girls grow up? Does he still care about them then?
The women in True Detective are defined primarily in relation to the men in their lives—wife, mother, daughter, whore. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. After all, noir is a genre obsessed with archetypes. But at some point these archetypes must become people. When the finale ended my mind kept going back to an interaction in the sixth episode between Rust and Kelly—the bruised-looking young girl who Martin and Rust found when shit went down at Reggie LeDoux’s meth joint. She is one of the show’s most striking symbols of the aftermath of male aggression. Her voice has a creepy singsong quality. She looks unkempt and wild-eyed. Years have passed but time has not healed her wounds. Ultimately, she’s just a symbol, not a human being. Did anyone ever visit her? Was the last time Rust and Martin saw her when they saved her from LeDoux? When Rust questions her there is neither empathy nor care in his approach. Bringing up the madness that has so scarred from her past leads her to, understandably, freak out. While I contend that noir is more about the journey than the ending and modern television criticism is too obsessed with final episodes, resolutions still matter a great deal. Looking at the meeting between Kelly and Rust in the sixth episode within the context of the entire season raises a lot questions about what motivated his obsession to solve the case. These women to him aren’t people with lives and desires that were snuffed out by nearly unimaginable horror. They are, at best, victims meant to be categorized or turned to for more information in pursuit of his case.
The finale ultimately brought justice not to Dora Lange or the many women brutalized by the systemic misogyny the cult represents but to the lives of Martin and Rust. What did we ever learn about Dora Lange (or any of the brutalized women for that matter)? That she was involved with drugs, that her life was defined by sharp edges and little hope. Besides that she is like every other female victim on shows of far less prestige in which dead women are remembered for the gruesomeness of their deaths, not the details of their lives. That isn’t just a narrative choice, it’s bad writing. How can we care about a woman we know almost nothing about? Yes, their killer has been caught, but they are only a footnote in a sordid news story that will be passed over next week for something even more abhorrent. Martin may have felt impotent and alone for the past decade. But solving the conspiracy and bringing Errol Childress to justice gave him a sense of purpose and brought the family that had moved on without him to his side. Rust chose to live and seems to have come to some sense of peace about all the darkness he has faced in the world, including the death of his daughter. There is a sense that after this, these two men are changed for the better.
This isn’t to say I don’t love the show or feel the writing is wholly subpar. But I think I have grown weary with the bulk of modern noir. For all the arguments about how film and television are getting better with depictions of women, in many ways they haven’t.
At 16, I didn’t first turn to noir just because of the stylized dialogue, sexual tension or narrative inventions. As a burgeoning black feminist I was attracted to what the films said about the ways men and women relate to each other. While True Detective constrains its perspective to Martin and Rust, two characters I do find fascinating and am glad exist, this isn’t a good enough excuse.
As viewers, women navigate the perspectives of men trying to identify and find points of shared interest in these testosterone-driven stories because we have to. Understanding men is important for our survival. For men, the reverse isn’t true. The end of True Detective proved that the lives of the women that spurned the plot are proven to be inconsequential. Why is it always women—our pride, our desires, our bodies—that exist as the foundation for some man’s path to redemption? Ultimately, the arcs of the male leads mirror the powerful words Rust said in the very first episode when he looked upon Dora’s body, “His vision, Her body.” It is the bodies of countless brutalized, silenced women like Dora Lange who the pave foundation for the male leads to fulfill a healthier vision of their lives. While many of the women in classic noir met brutal ends, they had a voice and influenced the narrative. Saying True Detective is sexist or misogynistic is too simplistic especially in light of the deft social critique it seemed committed to earlier in the season. But for all its narrative dexterity and literary allusions, True Detective forgets the need to give its victims a soul. Pizzolatto leaves us with the same problem permeating modern noir: women’s bodies used as emblems for the visions of men and not much else.
In the end, it almost doesn’t matter who The Yellow King is because he’s always around, isn’t he? The violence men inflict on women is inherited, reverberating through time and generations. The Yellow King is every man who has treated a woman like an object. Who sees their worth not in their minds or hearts but what lies between their thighs. It is every woman who has internalized so much fucking misogyny from the world around her she proclaims with pride, “I’m not like the other girls.” It’s every politician seeking to shred a woman’s autonomy. It’s every man like Martin Hart. It’s every showrunner who uses a woman’s suffering to advance the plot and create angst for the men who survive. It’s every producer who erroneously says the stories of women don’t sell. Being the daughter of an abusive father (and inheriting his temper), I have seen the ways my father’s hatred of my mother, his virulence to any woman who has ever said “No” has been distilled into my brother. There have been many men in noir emblematic of the misogyny The Yellow King represents. Think of Kirk Douglas’s brutality in Ace in the Hole. The sexual masochism in Kiss Me Deadly. Joseph Cotten’s obsessive, conflicting desire with Marilyn Monroe in Niagara.
Ultimately, I can’t stop thinking about the silenced women and girls that color the margins of modern noir like True Detective. Those dead-eyed baby doll whores, modern femme fatales, smooth operators and women of violent means who use sex and wit and bared teeth to gain leverage in a sick world trying to keep them powerless. The screen sirens, the depressed wives, those suicide blondes with runs in their stockings and freedom on their mind deserve as much narrative weight as men like Rust Cohle. All these yearning silenced women that writers like Nic Pizzolatto for all their skill seem unable to truly write or understand except for how far their flesh yields. It’s time we started telling their stories again.
Angelica Jade Bastién is a screenwriter, essayist, and southern dame currently living in Chicago. She focuses primarily on Old Hollywood, noir, madness, southern gothic, and female anger. She is currently focusing on writing several screenplays including the feature, The Perversions of Quiet Girls. Further writings can be found on her site, Madwomen & Muses.