‘True Detective’ Season 4 Review: HBO Series Makes an Icy Hot Comeback

Jodie Foster and Kali Reis carry “Night Country” past spooky red herrings and gratuitous melodrama.

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The fourth season of “True Detective” is noticeably different from the past three. Set above the Arctic Circle rather than below the Mason Dixon Line, built around troubled women rather than traumatized men, written and directed by Mexican auteur Issa López with no apparent input from series creator Nic Pizzolatto … And it’s literally darker than the others. Subtitled “Night Country,” the main action takes place from Dec. 17 through the new year, when the sun never rises over the fictional town of Ennis, Alaska.

Yet formulaic elements from the HBO anthology’s earlier chapters are identifiable: Cops with pasts that threaten to derail whatever life they’ve got left. Perhaps, though probably not, supernatural undercurrents. Grotesque tableaux conceived with Fincher-like imagination, presented in gleeful/gross detail. While López — known for her observant, magical realist study of Mexican kids navigating drug war crossfire “Tigers Are Not Afraid” — brings refreshing new perspectives to the show’s psycho-procedural template, a pro forma specter haunts her six, hour long episodes.

What’s cool about this icy season is pretty hot, though.

Leads Jodie Foster and Kali Reis top that list, ably carrying an investigation past spooky red herrings and gratuitous melodrama. The Hollywood veteran plays Ennis police chief Liz Danvers, a no-nonsense pro (“This is a crime scene, I want you to pretend you know what you’re doing!” she barks at underlings clowning around a grisly mound of frozen corpses) assigned to this remote outpost for reasons other than the professed one, her skill at dealing with the criminal psychology effect of monthslong winter nights. Pro boxer and “Catch the Fair One” star Reis is Detective Evangeline Navarro, an Afghan War vet who came to Alaska to reconnect with the Iñupiaq half of her heritage.

Danvers disdains Navarro since a domestic call they responded to went sideways some years ago. But when the all-male staff of the nearby Tsalal Arctic Research Station go missing, and are later found naked and frozen on the tundra, Navarro strives to convince Danvers it’s connected to the unsolved murder of an Indigenous anti-mining activist.

Many prehistoric spiral symbols, ghost sightings, ice cave explorations and oranges inexplicably rolling into frame later, Danvers is convinced to apply her “Ask the right question” sleuthing method to solving all the mysteries.
true-detective-kali-reis-hboKali Reis in “True Detective: Night Country.” (Michele K. Short/HBO)


Considering all their other issues, it’s remarkable that the main characters have time to get any detective work done. Danvers’ teenage, Indigenous stepdaughter Leah (“Pet Sematary: Bloodlines’” Isabella Star LaBlanc) is rebelling in every way imaginable, from protesting the polluting Silver Sky Mine that keeps the community’s lights on — and is undoubtedly responsible for the high rate of Iñupiaq stillbirths — to seducing the evil mine owner’s daughter. Danvers herself may be the most sexually active role Foster has played since her underage prostitute in “Taxi Driver” 48 years ago. The crimestopper has had affairs with a number of Ennis men and Alaska law enforcement professionals, and keeps a Fairbanks Tinder account for when the polar night gets too long. Foster constructs this complicated cop with an impressive display of compartmentalization; she sells each of Danvers’ manifold aspects and attitudes in their moments.

Navarro’s love life is simpler; she roughly takes charge atop a local brewer (Joel Montgrand) when she wants. Her policing methods are more brutal, and she can deck any guy, in or out of uniform, as long as they don’t gang up on her. But Navarro is deeply burdened by the cases she couldn’t crack and worry that her mentally unstable sister Julia (a poignant Aka Niviâna) will go the way of their lost mother. While we never fear that anything will break tragedy-hardened Danvers, Reis gives the more physically imposing Navarro a soul that’s way too tender for this cold, cold world.

Supporting characters tend to fulfill plot, exposition or representational functions. The most interesting secondary relationships are between Peter Prior (Finn Bennett), a good young cop who Danvers takes a mentoring shine to, his Iñupiaq wife Kayla (Anna Lambe), who resents his boss’ monopolizing Peter’s time, and his father Hank (John Hawkes), a skeezy Ennis P.D. veteran who naturally (and wrongly) accuses Danvers of doing a Mrs. Robinson on his son — as mentioned, this woman knows how to compartmentalize.
true-detective-night-country-jodie-foster-finn-bennet-hbo-mchele-k-shortJodie Foster and Finn Bennet in “True Detective: Night Country.” (Michele K. Short/HBO)
Some over-the-top Greek tragedy ensues, as do too many one-damn-thing-after-another personal problems. But while López’s bigger picture may feel a bit self-conscious about righting uncountable wrongs done to women, Native people and nature itself, its key riddles are resolved in satisfying, surprising yet well set-up ways. The director originally wrote this story as a kind of Western before HBO came calling, and she’s made the cultural shifts persuasively with the help of Inuit consultants. Shot in Iceland, the series looks (as far as most of us in the Lower 48 can tell) and feels very American, both Native and colonizer-wise.

Cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister (“Tár”) captures images that chill to the bone, whether on cracking sea ice as a Category Four storm approaches or when a mummified human tongue inexplicably manifests under a kitchen table.

All this macabre frostiness can’t help but remind us of that other great cable crime anthology, FX’s “Fargo.” “Night Country” doesn’t possess a smidgen of the FX series’ black comedy. Cartoonish as they can be, Noah Hawley’s characters are often more quirkily human than López’s people are permitted to get. All the behavior here is ultra-motivated, even when it’s irrational, which sometimes inhibits breathability.

That’s counterintuitively by-the-book for a show about cops at odds with the system. Yet “True Detective” Season 4 is nonetheless as engrossing as its best predecessors. We’re never not eager to see what happens next or what it means to the tarnished protagonists, however cliched, beside-the-point or undeniably moving that may turn out to be.

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