'Sharp Objects': TV Review

Riveting prestige-pulp.
7/8/2018

HBO's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's novel boasts an Emmy-ready performance by Amy Adams and savvy, confident direction from Jean-Marc Vallee.

Like the Gillian Flynn novel it's based on, HBO's Sharp Objects is a fascinating fake-out.

It's a murder mystery, but its main character isn't a detective. She isn't even necessarily an especially good journalist. The law enforcement characters are secondary, and the case they're pursuing is light on enriching clues and heavy on unreliable witnesses. It takes little time to realize that any effort to unravel the crime is wasted; our heroine is the conundrum that needs to be unraveled, and much of the story's tension comes from her inability to realize this.

On TV, Sharp Objects can't precisely capture Flynn's prose and the internalized descent into disorientation taken page-by-page, but series director Jean-Marc Vallee finds his own visual language that, driven by a ferociously wounded performance by Amy Adams, makes this eight-hour limited series haunting and riveting — both prestige and pulp.

Adams plays Camille Preaker, a disheveled big city reporter nursing psychological and physical wounds from a slowly revealed recent incident. For reasons more charitable than professional, Camille's editor (Miguel Sandoval) sends her to tiny Wind Gap at the very bottom of Missouri. Wind Gap, population 2,000 with an unbridgeable gap between the haves and have-nots, is dealing with the murder of one young girl and the disappearance of another. It's a town engulfed in fear and it's also Camille's hometown, where her eccentric mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson) is a beloved and puzzled-over grande dame and her half-sister Amma (Eliza Scanlen) is in the twilight between childlike innocence and unrestrained adolescence, following in Camille's footsteps in a way that could prove dangerous. Camille's editor hopes she comes back with a juicy human interest story about a grieving community, but what he truly wants is for Camille to confront a few demons, unaware of the depth of trauma she's been inelegantly dodging for years.

Without any wholesale overhauling of the main plot, expanding the novel allows showrunner Marti Noxon, and a team of writers that includes Flynn, to take the story outside of Camille's head occasionally. A slight fleshing-out of the roles of the local police chief (Matt Craven) and interloping outside investigator (Chris Messina) contributes very little, nor does it really need to. Through the seven episodes sent to critics, their job is to be sweaty, exhausted and simultaneously perplexed and intrigued by Camille's presence and the unsettling impact of her occasional reporting.

Camille's journalistic ethics are negligible and her writing is mostly unseen, so Vallee concentrates on the idea of Camille as an obsessive observer. We're experiencing Wind Gap mostly through her eyes, lingering on the abject poverty and fixating on the out-of-place opulence, and through her ears, which are attuned to the hum of cicadas, the rumble of her beat-up Volvo's engine and the distraction of a soundtrack playlist that she curates herself. Camille is sensitive to the world around her — probably too sensitive. She's trying to understand a story that's complicated by the fact that every location in Wind Gap — both the town, with its lack of small-town charm, and her mother's mausoleum of a gated mansion, mirrored by Amma's elaborate dollhouse, are practically characters worthy of at least fourth billing — is like a wormhole pulling Camille into a past she'd rather avoid, one filled with death, repressed sexual experiences and pent-up pain.

Even more than on Big Little Lies, Vallee's imprint is consistent throughout (he doubles confidently as editor), capturing the familiar-yet-alien disorientation of returning to a place you once called home. The uncanny casting of Sophia Lillis (Beverly from It) as the young Camille works as a special effect, allowing Vallee to slip smoothly between Adams and her juvenile doppelgänger like the camera is tapping into her subconscious.

Adams is tremendous: Your attention never wavers from her, even if you lose track of how or what Camille is doing in Wind Gap. Characters keep mentioning that Camille used to be locally renowned for her beauty, that everybody just assumed she was destined for great things, and one or two times per episode, Adams lets us see that side of the character via a clever quip or an enticing twinkle of the eye. The rest of the time she alternates between near-catatonic — self-medicating with water bottles filled with booze — and stuck in torment between the past and present, trying to escape her own skin. The awards potential preordained by Adams' casting is more than justified by her performance. (Adams is so good you only rarely stop and try to do the math on how old the show wants Camille to be and whether Adams makes sense as Clarkson's daughter or if teenage characters could have remembered idolizing Camille when they were kids.)

Long before toxic masculinity became a well-deserved boogeyman for Hollywood and the real world, Flynn (Gone Girl) was building stories around women warped beyond recognition by societal pressure to conform, by notoriety, by male desire or disregard. In Sharp Objects and in Wind Gap, that damage spans generations, personified by Clarkson's soured Tennessee Williams matriarch — a lilting mixture of passive-aggressive putdowns and condescending charm — and by Scanlen's protean Amma, play-acting both mama's little girl and lollipop-fixated Lolita equally.

I'm not sure Clarkson can quite figure out how to make Adora feel like more than a well-played literary construct, but Scanlen is frightfully good, like Adams able to reconcile many character contradictions. Elizabeth Perkins, Madison Davenport and Sydney Sweeney, having a heck of a year with strong Everything Sucks! and The Handmaid's Tale roles, also shine in a story in which the women are wounded and manipulative but always vital and the men are ineffectual, stunted or, worst of all, ordinary. That leaves Craven and Messina most memorable for being unmemorable, as suits their purpose in a story that doesn't expect either of their characters to save the day or be able to save Camille.

Something of a summer popcorn thriller for grownups, Sharp Objects builds its sense of unease as it goes, leading with a "Who's killing Wind Gap's girls?" question before really making you care about Camille, a character who seems to start at rock bottom, but still has terrifying room to fall.

Cast: Amy Adams, Patricia Clarkson, Chris Messina, Eliza Scanlen, Elizabeth Perkins, Matt Craven
Creator: Marti Noxon from the book by Gillian Flynn
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Premieres: Sunday, July 8, 9 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)

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