HBO's 'Sharp Objects' Starts Slowly But Ends With a Mind-Blowing Bang
When Sharp Objects starts, there's a hollow familiarity to Amy Adams' heroine Camille Preaker. As she sucks down vodka from an Evian bottle and fills her car's ashtray with cigarette butts, she appears to be the archetype of the troubled soul. There are shades of True Detective's Rust Cohle, Jessica Jones from the eponymous Marvel show, and even a hint of Carrie Mathison on Homeland. Camille, you instantly recognize, is someone with a dark past and shit to work out.
Initially -- before the limited series fleshes out its macabre world -- this registers as possibly tiresome. The antihero, in both its male and female incarnations, has evolved in the last couple of years. As viewers have asked for more varied portrayals of trauma, creators have responded in kind. Complicated people -- women, especially -- don't have to be so damn dark. (Thank goodness for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.)
Coming as it is now in 2018, Sharp Objects invariably draws comparisons to Big Little Lies, which in some ways felt like an evolution of the aforementioned tropes. Like the Reese Witherspoon-Nicole Kidman vehicle, it's a flashy, female-focused production on HBO with major movie stars and is directed in its entirety by Jean-Marc Vallée. Indeed, Vallée has imported some of his hallmarks here, including a killer soundtrack that does as much work as the cinematography, and both concern the interior lives of (mostly white) women in close quarters.
Sharp Objects does, in fact, hail from a different era: It's adapted from Gillian Flynn's 2006 novel, her first, before she became a sensation thanks to Gone Girl. When I started digging into the series, it had been a while since I had read Flynn's Gothic narrative. But as I found myself drawn deeper into the sweaty muck of Wind Gap, Missouri, I remembered with whom I was dealing: Flynn is a master at peeling back our expectations. And her collaborators here -- Vallée, Marti Noxon, and Adams -- have figured out ways to do that cinematically so watching feels like picking at a scab until the raw skin underneath is revealed. Or waking up with a terrible hangover trying to remember the night before.
Camille's editor at a St. Louis newspaper sends her to investigate the murder of a local girl after another goes missing in the small Missouri town where Camille grew up. Almost as soon as Camille arrives, the other victim is found dead, her teeth ripped from her mouth. What follows is a hunt for the killer, yes, but also an excavation of Camille's scars both figurative and literal. By going to Wind Gap, she must confront her estranged mother, as well as the lingering presence of her dead sister.
Immediately, Sharp Objects is playing with fragments of memory. At first, these glimpses of the past -- in which IT's Sophia Lillis plays young Camille -- are difficult to parse. What exactly are they depicting? But as what Camille has repressed starts to bubble up, those fragments become clearer. The experience begs rewatching -- not to parse out clues of the case, but to fully understand the slow burn character study.
Though the book is written in the first person, Adams and Noxon managed to unleash Camille's cynical, unsparing viewpoint without the use of voiceover. In turn, they've translated the most shocking element of the text -- the words Camille has carved all over her body in an act of self-harm -- sensitively. That's not to say that the reveal is not devastating, but in other hands, it could be prurient rather than painful. Adams almost always finds a way to top herself. She finds an uneasy balance between Camille's swagger -- watch the way she walks -- and her masked grief.
Similarly, most of the rest of cast opts to go subtle when the temptation is certainly there to go big. (Perhaps the one exception is Elizabeth Perkins as the resident booze-soaked gossip, but it's a thoroughly delicious performance nonetheless.) Camille's mother Adora fancies herself a polite Southern matron, but Patricia Clarkson leans into her willful blindness rather than her malice. Her Adora wants to remove herself from situations, living in her ignorance to an eerie degree. Every so often, she picks at her eyelashes. Apples, trees, etc.
Their trio of hereditary turmoil is rounded out by Amma, the teenage half-sister Camille doesn't really know played by newcomer Eliza Scanlen. (In the book, Amma is 13. She is 15 in the series.) Amma is disturbingly contradictory. By day, she dresses as Adora wishes in bows and pretty dresses; by night, she puts on roller skates and short shorts. She's as preoccupied with drugs as she is with her dollhouse. Amma is an enigma -- at times intentionally duplicitous -- and yet Scanlen manages to wring sympathy out of her. Like Camille, you find yourself drawn to her, wanting to both shield her and see her self-destruct.
Sharp Objects, though pulpy, also asks for your patience and your interrogation. Watch with your bullshit detector on high alert, but feel free to get lost in its dreamy haze. And, as with any good mystery, don't trust your first instincts. What looks like a predictable story turns out to be so much more rewarding.