Those planning to watch True Detective may want to stop reading now, although I will speak in the broadest terms possible and very briefly at that.
I have likened True Detective to several films and shows: The Wire, Heat, and Se7en. Okay, three films/shows. But I missed one. The similarities were there from the very beginning, but like a true detective I failed to spot the clue that was right under my nose.
True Detective is televisions answer to The Tree of Life, at least on a metaphysical level. Of course the visions of these two pieces of art are, at times, miles apart, as well as the nuts and bolts of the respective plots...to the extent that The Tree of Life has a plot. Yet even these dissimilarities produce interesting juxtapositions. For example, the tree in Malick's film is a sign of growth, of reaching towards the heavens, of the reception of light. The tree in True Detective is a place of death, a place were the flames of hell have scorched the earth. All this is in fact illustrated in the very first scene.
But more than these two works having trees in them, it is Rust Cohle that provides the real point of contact. Cohle speaks like he sneaked his way into a Malick script, but instead of gushing about the glory that surrounds us, the light that shines through all things, he has scribbled out Malick's doxological flourishes and replaced them with what he himself calls "philosophical pessimism." If Malick is Heideggerian, Pizzolatto (the writer of True Detective) is self-consciously Nietzschean. Or at least Cohle is.
As I noted already, the stories told by Malick and Pizzolatto go in completely different directions. Yet there is one crucial narrative strand that makes seeing them together an entirely justifiable and fruitful endeavour. In True Detective, we learn very quickly one of the reasons behind Cohle's bleak outlook: his daughter died when she was four. Indeed, the day that kicks off this 17-year case is the anniversary of his daughter's death. The same narrative strand runs through The Tree of Life. Much of what we see occurs because Jack O'Brien (JOB) is meditating on his past on the day of his dead brother's anniversary.
The questions that undergird these works are therefore remarkably similar: How do humans deal with tragedy, with unbearable loss? What is the true nature of a world in which tragedies like this happen? And what story or stories do we tell ourselves to make sense of the whole?
You will be hard pressed to find more honest and compelling answers to these questions than those offered by The Tree of Life and True Detective. I say answers; what we get instead are poetic visions that linger on in the lives of anyone willing to do what is almost impossible in this age of ours: to contemplate.