Frosty, Fierce and Phenomenal: 'Night Country' Brings 'True Detective' Back to Its Powerhouse Best

Ten years since the HBO mystery series debuted, this Jodie Foster- and Kali Reis-led fourth season is just as dazzling as the episodes that started it all.
Sarah Ward
January 15, 2024

Even when True Detective had only reached its second season, the HBO series had chiselled its template into stone: obsessive chalk-and-cheese cops with messy personal lives investigating horrifying killings, on cases with ties to power's corruption, in places where location mattered and with the otherworldly drifting in. A decade after the anthology mystery show's debut in 2014, almost to the day, True Detective returns as Night Country, a six-part miniseries that builds its own snowman out of all of the franchise's familiar parts. The main similarity from there: like the Matthew McConaughey (The Gentlemen)- and Woody Harrelson (White House Plumbers)-led initial season, True Detective: Night Country is phenomenal.

Arriving weekly from Monday, January 15 via Binge in Australia and Neon in New Zealand, True Detective's fourth season is a return to form and a revitalisation. Making it happen after two passable intervening cases — with Taylor Kitsch (Painkiller), Colin Farrell (The Banshees of Inisherin) and Rachel McAdams (Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret) in season two, then Mahershala Ali (Leave the World Behind) and Stephen Dorff (The Righteous Gemstones) in season three — is a new guiding hand off-screen. Tigers Are Not Afraid filmmaker Issa López directs and writes or co-writes every episode, boasting Moonlight's Barry Jenkins as an executive producer. True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto remains in the latter role, too, as do McConaughey, Harrelson and season-one director Cary Joji Fukunaga (No Time to Die); however, from its female focus and weighty tussling with the dead to its switch to a cool, blue colour scheme befitting its Alaskan setting, there's no doubting that López is reinventing her season rather than ticking boxes.

Pizzolatto oversaw and penned or co-penned very True Detective episode before now, and helmed some season three instalments. In handing over the reins, his police procedural that's never been a standard police procedural is both a powerhouse again — which season two and three couldn't manage — and lives up to the potential of its concept. The commitment and cost of delving into humanity's depths and advocating for those lost in its abyss has swapped key cops, victims and locations with each spin, including enlisting the masterful double act of Jodie Foster (Nyad) and boxer-turned-actor Kali Reis (Catch the Fair One) to do the sleuthing in season four, but seeing each go-around with fresh eyes feels like the missing puzzle piece.

López spies the toll on the show's first women duo in True Detective: Night Country, as well as the splinters in a remote community when its fragile sense of certainty is forever shattered. She spots the fractures that pre-date not only the investigation at the heart of the new season, but a cold case tied to it, plus the gashes that've carved hurt and pain into the earth ever since people stepped foot on it. She observes the pursuit of profit above all else, and the lack of concern for whatever — whoever, the region's Indigenous inhabitants included — get in the way. She sees that the eternal winter night of 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle come mid-December isn't the only thing impairing everyone's sight. And, she knows that not everything has answers, with life sometimes plunging into heartbreak, or inhospitable climes, or one's own private hell, without rhyme or reason.

In the fictional mining town of Ennis, Foster's police chief Liz Danvers has few friends; her curt demeanour, hatred of people and long line of casual partners among the local husbands doesn't help. Reis' state trooper Evangeline Navarro certainly isn't among those who consider themselves a pal, after the two teamed up on a murder-suicide years prior. But when all eight researchers at Tsalal Arctic Research Station, all men, go missing as the polar dark spell sets in for the year, the two women are forced to collaborate. With Ferris Bueller's Day Off glitching on the base's TV and food left out, it doesn't appear that the disappeared men left by choice. A detached tongue found on the scene has Reis certain that whatever strangeness is afoot is linked to an unsolved murder of a fellow Indigenous woman six years earlier that she's determined to put to rest. There's also The Thing vibes before, during and after the glacial expanse reveals Lovecraftian horrors, and the season's supernatural thread makes its presence known.

True Detective's past casts have been outstanding — the McConaughey and Harrelson season was peak McConaissance — regardless of whether the material met their talents. Recalling her Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs performance but as a been-there-seen-that veteran rather than a fresh recruit, Foster is the show's finest enlistment yet. As the hard-nosed, detail-driven yet secretly caring Danvers, whose mentoring relationship with her unreliable deputy Hank Prior's (John Hawkes, Too Old to Die Young) fresh-faced officer son Peter (Finn Bennett, Hope Gap) lays bare her question-driven approach and the compassionate side she'd rather hide, she's mesmerising. Beside her, so is Reis. That the latter brings unflinching passion to the part is hardly surprising for someone with just two prior on-screen credits who now co-leads Night Country with Foster, and they make a fierce and steely odd-couple pair.

Crucial to López's time in charge is fleshing out the flaws, losses, hopes and yearnings that make everyone within her frames who they are. From her central duo and their law-enforcement colleagues — Christopher Eccleston (Dodger) plays Danvers' boss, who threatens to take over — to Danvers' teenage stepdaughter (Isabella Star LaBlanc, Pet Sematary: Bloodlines) and her rallying against the mine, Navarro's struggling and grief-stricken sister (debutant Aka Niviâna), and the blow-in professor (Fiona Shaw, Andor) who has gleefully left her stressful old existence behind — there's no such thing as a one-dimensional character here. Complexity snows down from every angle, including from within. While "time is a flat circle" gets a workout in one reference backwards, True Detective: Night Country's equivalent is "it's a long fucking night — even the dead get bored", but there's nothing tedious about spending six hours with its figures and mysteries.

Hollywood has been embracing frosty noir heartily of late, with A Murder at the End of the World, season five of Fargo and True Detective: Night Country all arriving within months of each other. Boasting 2023 Oscar-nominee for Tár Florian Hoffmeister lensing True Detective's switch to the literally chilling, Night Country looks as sharp and biting as it feels: all gleaming snow and inky endless evening, with light and dark aesthetically warring like human impulses. This is the series' ongoing dance, but only in its first season with that famous six-minute tracking shot (by Australian Animal Kingdom, Snowtown and Top of the Lake cinematographer Adam Arkapaw) has it dazzled so visibly and hauntingly until now. Yes, True Detective is back after a five-year gap since season three — and for the first time since 2014, it's also back to its best.

Check out the trailer for True Detective: Night Country below:

True Detective: Night Country streams in Australia from Monday, January 15, 2024 via Binge in Australia and Neon in New Zealand.

Images: HBO.

Published on January 15, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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