We Need to Talk About Woody Harrelson

Matthew McConaughey is having “a year.” From gut-wrenching roles in Mud and Dallas Buyers Club to his complex and everyone-can’t-stop-talking-about-it role as Detective Rust Cohle in True Detective, we are all in the midst of the McConnaissance. And it has been rightfully earned, the guy has really turned heads in the past five or so years (even though he’s been a good dramatic actor for a lot longer than a rom com star, but I’ll let that go). In any case, his True Detective co-star Woody Harrelson who has been delivering just as complex and captivating performances has kiiiiiiiiiinda been getting the short end of the stick. In fewer words: No one is talking about Woody Harrelson.

Well, at least not as much as they’re talking about McConaughey. True Detective has been the show of 2014. With the big gaping hole that was left after Breaking Bad ended, viewers needed a new anti-hero drama to get sucked in to. And oh, how True Detective has delivered. The series goes beyond the scope of television in so many ways — from the harrowing final shot of episode four to the panic-inducing suspense of each minute of the gritty script.

As much as True Detective has been a vehicle for the McConnaissance, it should also be looked at as the reintroduction to Woody Harrelson. Is McConaughey that much more of a surprise than Harrelson? Sure, Harrelson’s had steady work starring in everything from drama to kids’ movies — however the kind of performance he’s turning out in True Detective should have him at the top of casting directors “must have” lists. He’s gone from the regular, sometimes funny guy to the guy who you can really loathe and yet still root for week after week to do the right thing. He’s having his Bryan Cranston moment.

Harrelson’s Marty Hart is an even greater anti-hero than Rust Cohle. He’s a cheater who has physically attacked his own daughter as well as his partner. He’s killed a criminal outside of the lines of the law. Oh yeah, and there’s a theory he might actually be the killer that Cohle is after. And we can see Cohle’s trajectory almost a bit more clearly than we can Hart’s. Oddly, Hart is the bigger wild card (at least so far). As much as Cohle is painted to be the loner who has gone off the grid, it’s really Hart who could be doing the most damage from inside the system. A wolf in sheep’s clothing, so to speak.

Part of what makes True Detective so watchable is the near perfect chemistry between its two stars. Just as Cohle icily delivers into Hart’s face after the two argue over paperwork, “Without me, buddy, there is no you,”... I would argue that there is no Matthew McConaughey of 2014 without Woody Harrelson. True Detective is not McConaughey’s show, it’s their show. It’s also of note that Harrelson has had a longer and more highly lauded track record than his co-star (Remember the People Vs. Larry Flynt?). It wouldn’t be a reach to say that not only did the two feed off of each other’s talent, but that they learned from one another as well.

The fact of the matter is, it’s hard to believe we only have two more weeks left with Marty and Rust. These characters are so deeply lived-in by their actors. Harrelson and McConaughey have equally disappeared into their roles and I am equally trepidatious and excited by what great stories and actors season two will bring. Until the final minute strikes on season one of True Detective, I’m not making any bets on where the mystery will lead. I will however put my money on seeing a lot more of Harrelson.