'The Sinner': TV Review | Tribeca 2017

Brownie Harris/USA Network
Jessica is Biel-ievably stressed out in this murder mystery.
8/2/2017

The pilot for USA Network's drama sets an unsettling tone and provides a good showcase for Jessica Biel.

The pilot for USA Network's The Sinner premiered on Tuesday at the Tribeca Film Festival and it's bound to leave some antsy attendees. The first 40-plus minutes are mysterious and unsettling, but they offer only the most tantalizing breadcrumbs for a limited series that won't premiere on-air until Aug. 2.

This is a show likely to require a second review in three-plus months, but after the pilot I'm at least curious to see more.

Adapted by Derek Simonds from the novel by German author Petra Hammesfahr, The Sinner is the story of Cora (Jessica Biel), a young mother having troubles sleeping and generally ill at ease with the world around her. A day trip to the lake with husband Mason (Christopher Abbot) and son culminates in an act of shocking violence. There are dozens of witnesses. Cora confesses. What seems straightforward, though, apparently is not, especially for dogged Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman). The end of the pilot has barely begun to explore what makes Cora tick.

With its sense of building discomfort and the looming prospect of savagery, The Sinner has some superficial similarities to pilot director Antonio Campos' festival favorite Christine, and whatever one feels about the story being told, the discomfiting mood established before a single line of dialogue is uttered is unquestionable. The Sinner is contemporary and is set somewhere in upstate New York, but the time and location are like something out of an ill-remembered nightmare, full of washed-out colors, pregnantly threatening clouds and the drone of pervasive cicadas and insects burrowing into the viewer's senses.

It's like a postcard for a place you aren't sure you've visited, but probably wouldn't want to return to, which isn't always the tone one would want a TV pilot to set. But The Sinner has the advantage of being a close-ended eight-episode series, which may be contained and tight enough to make viewers crave answers for what's messing with Cora's head.

Biel, an executive producer with her Iron Ocean partner Michelle Purple, is committed to the strain that Cora is going through. Campos and Simonds start Cora in a place of wan anxiety and push her as far as unexplained ferality, and Biel wears the distress proudly. There's a shade of "Look at me, I'm not wearing makeup!" performative ordinariness, but it's interesting how Biel and Campos play her most photogenic traits as dangerous or out-of-sorts, lighting her cheekbones as something animalistic, showing her unclothed or underclothed only when she's most alienated from her environment. The overall quality of the performance will depend on what shadings The Sinner gives her to play, but it's a good start.

Finding more shadings for the male characters may be even more important. That Abbott's Mason descends into mumbly, dead-eyed confusion after what happens with his wife isn't surprising, but he's mumbly before anything goes wrong. Pullman, whose character comes from the self-flagellating cable anti-hero playbook, is at least interestingly twitchy. None of the other characters or performances really imprint immediately.

"It's not a question of who or how, but why…" reads the tag line for The Sinner. At least for one episode, though, that's where the series has to start. I can't tell you if the "why" relates to something quasi-religious (seems likely), quasi-supernatural (seems possible) or quasi-psychological (almost certainly). That's where the theme is. That's where the subtext is. That's where the show is.

The hook made me properly vexed and concerned, but I can't imagine this is a sustainable tone. I'll be very interested to see more episodes before Aug. 2 to track if the way this unfolds is worthwhile or seven episodes of increasing unpleasantness.

Cast: Jessica Biel, Bill Pullman, Christopher Abbott.
Creator: Derek Simonds, from the book by Petra Hammesfahr.
Premieres: Wednesday, Aug. 2, 10 p.m. ET/PT (USA Network)

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