As David Simon once explained in his non-fiction book Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets, murder cases typically qualify as either whodunits or dunkers: “Whodunits are genuine mysteries; dunkers are cases accompanied by ample evidence and an obvious suspect.”
USA’s new miniseries The Sinner would seem to be about a dunker. On a beautiful day at a crowded beach, new mom Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel) abruptly and repeatedly stabs a stranger to death. Everyone sees her do it, and Cora doesn’t bother trying to deny things to the police.
Homicide cop Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), though, doesn’t quite see it that way. It’s obviously not a whodunit, but he can’t stop wondering about Cora’s motives, no matter how often she insists, “I just did it, and I don’t know why.”
The “why” of it gives The Sinner — adapted by Derek Simonds from the book by Petra Hammesfahr, it debuts tonight at 10 (I’ve seen the first two of eight episodes) — a unique hook that in many ways is better-suited than a regular whodunit to the modern serialized TV format. Often, longform television mysteries either telegraph the killer’s identity many episodes before it’s revealed, or else throw out so many red herrings that the actual solution begins to feel not worth it. (This was a huge problem with The Killing, for instance.) Here, everybody knows what happened on the beach, but there’s a lot of wiggle room in terms of motive to explore, from suggestions that Cora’s victim might not have been a stranger to flashbacks exploring her childhood in a deeply religious family. At times, there are suggestions she knows exactly why she did it and isn’t telling, while at others, it seems as if it’s a mystery even to her.
For this to work requires a strong actor playing Cora, and Biel (who also executive produces) delivers. She’s had a spotty movie career, but often gravitated towards directors or projects who would challenge her when she could have very easily played variations on her I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry character for a decade. This is not only her most prominent role in years, but the best performance she’s given. She wears virtually no makeup (other than in occasional glimpses of Cora as a younger woman) and deploys an understated working-class accent, both of which could feel like crutches to cover for the fact that this anonymous wife (to Christopher Abbott’s Mason) and mom happens to look like Jessica Biel. Instead, they serve to enhance the raw, unvarnished nature of Biel’s performance. The early episodes offer only the faintest hints of Cora’s history, particularly in the years right before she met Mason, but she’s very clearly someone just barely holding herself together, trying not to be noticed for who she is and who she isn’t. There are times where incarceration almost seems a relief to her, and others where the restrictions of life behind bars only serve to exacerbate her many demons. It’s a lot of subtle gradations to move between — along with occasional outbursts of grief and/or rage — and Biel moves easily from one to the next.
It’s an impressive turn, strong enough to carry such a grim show that can occasionally become a slog. What vague hints of whimsy The Sinner has room for tend to come from Pullman, as an archetypal “good at his job, a disaster at home” investigator, whose eccentricities baffle his fellow cops and fill his estranged wife with despair. Nobody at work or home wants Harry to keep investigating this case, but it becomes an itch he can’t scratch, and Pullman and Biel effectively fend off each other’s attacks.
There’s still plenty of opportunity for this to go awry, and for the ultimate explanation of Cora’s motive to either feel telegraphed or ring false. But eight episodes seems a compact enough running time to tell this story without dragging out any one part of it past the point of interest, and Biel is a revelation in the lead role. Sometimes, actors insist on a producer credit in order to protect their image, but here she’s casting her image aside in favor of a more interesting one.
The Sinner wants the audience to wonder, like Harry and Mason and everyone else, why Cora Tannetti would do such an uncharacteristic thing. But the first few hours leave little doubt as to why Jessica Biel deviated from expectations.