Slow, dreamy Sharp Objects begins, fittingly enough, with a dream sequence. The camera drives us through a forgotten small town, not abandoned but as good as, and weaves us alongside two pre-teen girls roller-skating together. The era is tough to place — Bush and Gore election signs dot the windows, but it’s not infeasible that they’ve been simply left up for years, out of neglect. But then, the dream logic allows a seamless transition: As one of the young girls (It actress Sophia Lillis) opens a door in the sprawling Southern home, we enter into a well-lit, modern apartment with an Obama poster beside the desk. She creeps over to a sleeping Amy Adams, and presses at her finger with an opened paper clip when — Amy Adams’s Camille wakes up. Alone. The girl was just a memory, the specter of her younger self (Lillis is so expertly cast as a young Adams that just looking at her is enough to reveal that narrative device).
Adult Camille Preaker is a heavy-drinking St. Louis reporter, just back in the office from a mysterious leave of absence, who’s assigned by her sympathetic editor (Miguel Sandoval) to return to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to investigate the disappearance of a young girl (another girl had already been found dead, months earlier). Deeply isolated, Camille avoids eye contact and talks no more than necessary — the opposite end of the spectrum from Amy Adams’ bubbly Giselle in Enchanted — and much of the narrative is Camille staring plaintively out of windows or inserting earbuds to listen to music. But if anyone can make that compelling, it’s Adams.
As Camille makes the rounds in the small town, populated by individuals who come across both friendly and deeply suspicious, we meet the primary figures in the investigation: a prickly policeman who doesn’t have much to go on and doesn’t want the story getting out; an outsider detective (Chris Messina) whose self-seriousness and banter with Camille promise an inevitable love interest; the father of the first murdered girl (Will Chase); and finally, Camille’s mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson), the Southern matriarch who glides through rooms in full-length dresses, drink in hand, to inject drama with a well-timed swoon or cutting remark.
Camille also comes across a local trio of pre-teen girls, dressed in very little, loitering on street corners, and stealing the flowers from the missing girl’s memorial. The ringleader, a fox-eyed blonde reveals herself only when she and Camille meet again in their mother’s home: She is Amma (Eliza Scanlen), Camille’s half-sister, who’s teenage troublemaker act stops as soon as she’s past her threshold, where she transforms into a cardigan-wearing angel who preens over her formal dollhouse like a girl five years younger.
Camille was with her half-sister (in teenage mean girl mode) and her friends when they hear a scream from an alley: the body of Natalie Keen has been dumped, sitting up, in a window, with all of her teeth removed.
Though the pieces of the mystery aren’t always as compelling as they could be (even the macabre detail of the dead bodies having their teeth removed doesn’t manage to turn this molasses-paced atmospheric show into a thriller), the pieces are beautiful. Gorgeously shot, expertly directed, and intensely aesthetically satisfying, the first episode of Sharp Objects will get you salivating to watch the next episode, less to solve the mystery and more just to re-enter its visual world.
The most compelling images from the episode come as the memories floating through Camille’s head. As a child, she swam in a lake, then explored to find a cabin with walls plastered in BDSM pornography. She ran in a cheerleader’s uniform through the woods, laughing, pursued by boys. She laid in bed next to her younger sister, Marian, and picked out shapes in the ceiling until Marian began convulsing. She tried to rub the garish pink lipstick off Marian’s lips while the girl was in her casket.
A few moments with Adora and it makes sense why these memories have been repressed, coming to the surface one at a time like bubbles in a slow-boiling pot. The mother spoils Amma, her seemingly perfect child, but snaps and hisses at Camille, especially when she brings up the investigative story she’s writing about the murders.
In the episode’s final seconds, the episode’s title, “Vanish,” reveals its true, unsettling meaning. Camille, who had been wearing long sleeves the entire time she’s been on screen, removes her clothing to take a bath. Her limbs are covered with the fine white scars of self-harm and the word VANISH is written on her arm. It almost seems to glow, ignited with power, before the scene disappears into black.