“True Detective” was never a series that went in for tender moments, but “True Detective: Night Country” — the show’s fourth season, after a five-year hiatus — takes a particularly unforgiving approach to the human condition. There is a moment late in the six-episide season, however, when the dour pop soundtrack turns sentimental and it’s clear that we are supposed to be tenderly moved by what is happening. What is happening is that someone is disposing of the dismembered body of the close family member they have just killed.
Created for HBO back in 2014 by the writer and English professor Nic Pizzolatto, the original iteration of “True Detective” was a gothic crime drama, in anthology form, marked by Pizzolatto’s penchant for ostensibly profound, quasi-poetic dialogue — Raymond Chandler by way of Rod McKuen.
The new season, directed and largely written by the Mexican filmmaker Issa López (it premieres on Sunday), dispenses with the poetry — it is by and large a plain-spoken affair. But where Pizzolatto’s “True Detective” stories were essentially traditional noirs with a gloss of pop psychology and horror-movie sensationalism, López commits fully to the outré and the supernatural. Parricide? That’s just coming up for air.
López is coy about whether the cops, scientists, mine workers and Indigenous Alaskans who populate her story are actually dealing with malevolent spirits, but she is profligate in her use of horror effects to jolt the audience and goose the plot. Unseen voices abound, and dead people are frequently seen. Polar bears loom in the darkness. Oranges mysteriously, repeatedly appear out of nowhere and roll under characters’ feet. A group of men freeze together in a big jumble, naked and mid-scream, and have to be cut out of the ice and slowly thawed under bright lights. (Somewhere, “The Thing” is wondering why it didn’t think of that.)
What caused the deaths of the frozen men is one of the cases at the center of “Night Country,” the other being the brutal murder years before of a young Indigenous woman. Investigating the two cases, whose connection gradually becomes clear, are two cops who hate each other, not in a funny or bantering way but with heavy sincerity.
Jodie Foster plays Danvers, the abrasive police chief of the remote Alaska mining town where the story is set, and Kali Reis plays Navarro, a dogged state trooper. Both characters carry crippling baggage: family deaths; troubled loved ones; wartime terror; the disadvantages of being female and, in Navarro’s case, Indigenous. On top of it all, they share a dark moment in their professional pasts, a secret that, like many things in the season, is frequently teased before being anticlimactically revealed.
And they are not alone in their dysfunction — nearly everyone in “Night Country” is beat up or broken down, angry or embittered. The exceptions are the saps: the preternaturally kind bartender, Qavvik (Joel D. Montgrand), whom Navarro uses for sex, and the puppy-dog deputy, Pete Prior (Finn Bennett), whom Danvers sees as a surrogate son and mercilessly overworks. They both border on caricature — men who are exceptional for being basically decent — but Montgrand and Bennett make them believable and sympathetic. John Hawkes can’t do the same for Prior’s father, Hank, a casually corrupt cop eagerly waiting for his online fiancée to arrive from Vladivostok; he’s a flat-out cartoon.
Arctic settings (the season was filmed in Iceland), shot with an emphasis on darkness and vast, empty landscapes, fit hand in glove with eerie horror motifs; close comparisons include John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and the British series “Fortitude,” a show that covers some of the same ground as “Night Country” but in a more diverting, less wearying fashion. López, with help from the cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, deploys those elements in an atmospheric if convoluted mystery that looks and feels, for a couple of episodes, as if it might work its way to an interesting conclusion. But she can’t keep it under control — the mystery steadily dissolves into preposterousness, the characters sink into incoherence, and the horror isn’t original or evocative enough to carry things on its own.
The one way in which the season can be said to succeed, if only on the strength of its convictions, is as a representation of cultural and economic depredation — environmental damage from the mine is a factor in the mystery, and the story’s resolution is better explained by issues and emotions than by evidence or character development.
That could make “Night Country” popular — an exemplar of a growing genre you might call virtue-noir — but it doesn’t make it good. Pizzolatto’s overwriting got oppressive, but out of its florid abundance actors like Matthew McConaughey, Taylor Kitsch and Mahershala Ali could fashion interesting characters. López doesn’t give her performers much to play beyond attitudes and postures.
At the center of the busy but dreary proceedings in “Night Country” is Danvers, who is a kind of anti-character: a protagonist, and essentially a heroine, who is almost comically unpleasant and inconsiderate and is hated by nearly everyone onscreen. (She’s a construct built for our current political climate, the just barely redeemable Karen.) Foster, against all odds, finds ways to make Danvers seem human and even uncovers glints of humor in her; how she does it is a bigger mystery than those men in the ice.