“We don’t have a lot of happy stories around here,” Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) dryly tells Detective Richard Willis (Chris Messina) about halfway through Sharp Objects. By then, we’ve already figured that out for ourselves.
Based on Gillian Flynn’s book of the same name, Sharp Objects is a new HBO miniseries, one that’s hopefully supposed to replicate the success of last year’s Big Little Lies. (The two even share director/editor Jean-Marc Vallé.) It’s a dark, slow-building, and occasionally traumatizing mystery where the actual central mystery — the murder of two young girls — isn’t even the show’s biggest intrigue.
That honor goes to Camille herself, portrayed by Adams in a mesmerizing and unforgettable performance. She’s a journalist who, encouraged by the sort of supportive boss who calls her “kiddo,” returns to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri to report on the murders. Camille is trauma personified, and Sharp Objects slowly picks at her literal and figurative wounds, doling out info about her childhood and revealing deep psychological issues. It’s easy to see how this could come off offensive and sensationalized — particularly when it comes to revealing Camille’s self-harm, which isn’t limited to the impressive amounts of vodka she puts down — but it’s in the capable hands of Marti Noxon (and Flynn herself writes a few episodes), who treats the subject with care.
It only takes a few minutes to understand Camille’s hesitation about returning home. Like the best shows that aim to create a specific, murky atmosphere with their environment (the first season of True Detective comes to mind), one of Sharp Objects‘ best characters is the fictional town of Wind Gap. You can almost feel the sweltering heat. It’s a place where people keep bourbon and ice cubes in their car’s center console, where “every woman gets a nasty label” if she doesn’t adhere to these unofficial, unspoken rules of womanhood, and where a central celebration heavily involves Confederate flags and a truly disturbing skit. There’s even something eerie about the way the teen girls choose outdated roller skates as their mode of transportation. The shots of these skates are hypnotizing, and hint that Wind Gap isn’t exactly rushing to usher itself into 2018. As Sharp Objects explores the town further, we see how much the town — and its unsubtle sexism — influenced Camille and the person she becomes.
Sharp Objects makes great use of flashbacks, stylized by Vallé (who directed and edited all eight episodes) in a way that feels totally seamless. Young Camille is played by Sophia Lillis (It) and the resemblance is remarkable — squint and you can barely tell the difference. Her scenes are often interspersed and overlapped with the present, switching between time periods in the blink of an eye. The audience relives Camille’s memories as she does: she hesitantly creeps into familiar areas, sometimes even mimicking her own childhood movements as if following a trail she previously made for herself.
Unsurprisingly, Wind Gap — where Camille’s younger sister died — is filled with fraught memories. Her mother Adora (a perfect Patricia Clarkson) speaks with such practiced Southern charm that you almost miss the bite in all her statements. When Camille shows up, unannounced, it’s not exactly a joyful reunion. “I just wish you phoned,” Adora says, practically using the door frame as a barrier between them. There’s also her teenage half-sister Amma (Eliza Scanlen), who becomes a different person depending on who is looking at her — perhaps a necessary tactic to survive there — and quickly becomes a character (and actor) to keep an eye on. Then there are the gossipy women in town (the booziest, Jackie, is played by Elizabeth Perkins) who, along with the Amma’s teen friends, casually reference Camille’s bright past as a beautiful cheerleader and snark about how they assumed she’d be someone better by now.
As a reporter, Camille is an observational character, not only inquisitive about the murders but about all of her surroundings — because one of Sharp Objects‘ mysteries is piecing together what’s happened to Camille in the past. It’s a testament to Adams’ talent as an actor that she portrays Camille effortlessly, speaking volumes with her eyes and her hesitations, commanding the screen without saying a word. She’s far more compelling than any of the men in town, including the requisite suspects, the out-of-town detective, and the forever-wary local police chief.
Sharp Objects is a slow burn, a show that rewards patient viewers. With eight episodes (I’ve screened seven), the story can sometimes feel a little stretched out, especially if you’ve read the book, but it always has something to say. It easily sets itself apart from the genre (“Dead girls everywhere,” Jackie drawls) by making the murder mystery almost an afterthought, instead aiming to instead explore Camille’s psychological issues and the ways in which we carry around our trauma.
Heavy and unflinching, Sharp Objects might not be the go-to for a light summer watch but in terms of story and acting, it’ll likely go down as one of the best shows of the year.
‘Sharp Objects’ premieres on HBO on the night of Sunday, July 8th.