Who would want to live in the Alaskan wilderness? Separated from the American border by almost 1,500 miles (but only 650-odd from Russia), this is bleakness incarnate. The wind moans, the soil is hard as iron, and the water runs still as stone. This land of snow on snow is the setting for True Detective: Night Country, the fourth instalment of Sky’s acclaimed series, which probes the very darkest recesses of our inhabited world – and the human psyche.
Jodie Foster is Liz Danvers, chief of police in the small central Alaskan town of Ennis. The community there has grown to serve local mining interests, but tensions surface between the newer residents and the indigenous communities who have long lived in this frozen wasteland. “We were here before,” a group of protestors chant. Also out on the tundra is the TSALAL Arctic Research Centre, which is where the show’s central mystery unfolds: the eight men who work there suddenly go missing. An investigation into the vanished scientists will bring Danvers back into contact with her estranged protégé Evangeline Navarro (former professional boxer Kali Reis) who is defrosting her own, somehow related, cold case.
Around Danvers and Navarro, a constellation of characters twinkle like stars in the Alaskan sky. There’s John Hawkes as Hank Prior, Danvers’ insubordinate deputy, and Finn Bennett as his son, the more accomplished copper, Peter. Rounding out the police complement is Christopher Eccleston’s hot shot detective, up from Anchorage and trying to nick the case away from Liz (who also just so happens to be his recently rekindled lover). Posing bigger problems on the domestic front is Liz’s step daughter Leah (Isabella Star LaBlanc), who is struggling with her identity and place in this remote community. Oh, and then there’s Fiona Shaw as a mysterious former professor who now lives out on the ice and speaks in elliptical gobbets.
The True Detective project has always attracted A-list, big screen talent, from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, in its first season, to Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams and Mahershala Ali in future instalments. But it’s not just the scale of the casting ambition that marks the show out – Night Country is cinematic in its every facet. Cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister revels in the wintery scenery; Iceland stood in for Alaska for the bulk of the shoot. Each snowflake refracts its source of light like a glitterball, rendering the blackness of Alaskan winters almost vividly bright.
No detective show should be reviewed without thorough examination of its central mystery. True Detective has always revelled in pulling existential threads from the most grievous of mortal crimes, and Night Country is no different. “They live here all year long. What are they looking for?” puzzles Danvers of the missing men. “The origin of life,” her junior, Peter, replies. What they find is closer to the origin of death. As bodies start turning up in the permafrost, Night Country indulges in the sort of body horror tableaus you could hang in the Louvre. The swirling fog of mysticism, both supernatural and theological (“It’s not magic,” Danvers judges, “there’s a real explanation for this”), can make the narrative threads slippery. Characters come and go, as crimes, old and new, are thawed out – and show creator Issa Lopez’s scripts do not deal in easy exposition. But True Detective: Night Country is a visual experience – its horror and beauty pummelling viewers with a relentless barrage of wordless feeling.
This isn’t to say Night Country is always an enjoyable watch. The atmosphere can be relentlessly defoliated, and the dialogue, excessively tantalising. Secrets – buried beneath a thick layer of snow – take an age to come to the surface. And Danvers is not always a comfortable presence in the lead role: “Take a look in the mirror Liz,” Navarro tells her. “No one can stand you.” In the word cloud of adjectives used to describe Jodie Foster over the course of her career, I suspect that “cold” and “icy” would be quite large – so, she’s perfectly cast here. Reis brings more fragility and humanity to her side of the detective duo. Familial struggles are treated with the show’s trademark lack of sentimentality, though some of the conflict between the indigenous communities (the sort of issues addressed so compellingly last year in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon) feel, at times, like political currency shoehorned into a timeless drama.
“Ennis is where the fabric of all things is coming apart at the seams,” announces Fiona Shaw, cryptically. Night Country takes the middle of nowhere as a jumping off point for a descent – into madness, violence, and the loss of faith. At its best and bleakest, the series reflects a true dark night of the soul.