“Don’t talk about morality like it’s black and white,” one weary detective counsels another in one of the opening scenes of Low Winter Sun. “It’s a damn strobe flashing back and forth, back and forth, all the time.” But in Low Winter Sun, AMC’s bleakly engrossing cop drama, the lights seem about to go out altogether.
Not since HBO’s The Wire left the air five years ago has a television series combined urban decay and moral decrepitude in such stark — and yet compulsively watchable — terms. Low Winter Sun is about broken men trudging a broken landscape where nothing is redeemable except perhaps a few cents’ worth of copper pipe scrounged from wrecked houses.
Like the 2005 BBC miniseries on which it is based, the action in Low Winter Sun starts with the murder of a cop, the profoundly and openly corrupt Brendan McCann. The killers are two of his own colleagues: his disgusted partner Joe Geddes and the heartsick Frank Agnew, who believes (with encouragement from Geddes) that his missing hooker girlfriend was murdered by McCann.
Agnew and Geddes convincingly disguise their work as a suicide and walk away thinking they’ve committed the perfect crime. But like a darkly fractured version of It’s A Wonderful Life, the death of McCann sends out too many ripples, knocking awry a police department internal investigation as well as a drug gang’s planned heist of a competitor.
And as the “suicide” gets renewed scrutiny, the alliance between Geddes (whose motives may be more complicated than they first appeared) and Agnew begins to fray, along with any semblance of moral ethos.
Is killing another cop for vengeance somehow more ethical than doing it for money? And is ratting out another cop more defensible when you do it to protect your pension than when you do it to protect the public? The emptiness of the choices only grows more obvious when contrasted with their mirror images among the drug gang, where young turks are plotting a coup against their chiefs.
The desolation of the cops’ lives in Low Winter Sun is matched by that of the city they patrol. This Detroit is a hellish post-apocalyptic vision of empty streets and shattered houses. A city where scavenging pipe from ruined homes actually rises to the level of a profession; a city where half the challenge of a murder investigation is getting to a corpse before wild dog packs gnaw all the evidence off it.
(Mind-boggling aside: Detroit taxpayers actually underwrote some of the costs of this dismal portrayal of themselves, through their state’s film incentive program.)
The ratty police station from which the cops operate is barely distinguishable from the crackhouses they raid, which is perhaps appropriate because criminals have more to fear from rival gangbangers than they do from the venal, exhausted cops.
And complicating everything, even the workings of the criminal underworld, are the city’s cavernous racial fissures. “This is a black man’s town,” warns the girlfriend of a white crook who plans to go into the cocaine business. When he seeks permission from the leaders of the neighborhood’s dominant black gang, they mock him mercilessly:
“Hey, everybody put your valuables away, the white folks is here!”
Low Winter Sun’s cast is top-notch all the way around, especially the actors playing the detective partners-in-crimes. Lennie James, who played an undercover fed in Jericho (and, more recently, a pleasant pimp in HBO’s Hung, set in a considerably sunnier version of Detroit), brings a feral intensity to his role as the conniving Geddes, scurrying to patch leaks in their cover story. And Mark Strong ( Zero Dark Thirty), reprising his role as Agnew in the BBC production, evokes the hopelessness of a man who has hit rock bottom, only to discover there’s a bottomless pit beneath it.