Sharp Objects is all atmosphere, zero momentum. But what atmosphere!
Amy Adams stars in Jean-Marc Vallée's adaptation of the Gillian Flynn novel
I want to throw the phrase “prestige TV” into the critical trashcan, right next to overused vocab like “golden age,” “timely,” and the opinion-adjacent handwash “I’m glad this exists.”
But the talent lineup producing HBO’s Sharp Objects is definably prestigious. The limited series (debuting Sunday at 9 p.m. ET) stars Amy Adams, five-time Oscar nominee and blue-eyed avatar of the modern human condition. She plays ambiguous protagonist Camille Preaker. Her mother, Adora, is the great Patricia Clarkson, one of those performers who always seems one big year away from an EGOT run.
Sharp Objects is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, the filmmaker who crested Matthew McConaughey’s comeback with Dallas Buyers Club before handing out renaissances to everybody in Big Little Lies. The show is created and co-written by Marti Noxon, suddenly omnipresent between this and Dietland. And it’s adapted from a book by Gillian Flynn, who also serves as a co-writer. Flynn earned phenomenon status with 2012’s Gone Girl, and that was only after she achieved the most glorious pinnacle of literary success: working as a TV critic at Entertainment Weekly.
Together, these fine people have produced the scuzziest, sweatiest, booziest drama of the summer. This is sizzling Southern gothic, a notion of small-town Missouri as witnessed by a sexy murderer drowning in a river of bourbon and blood.
Adams initially makes Camille seem like a magnificent wreck, the kind of film-noir type who winds up a suspect in her own murder. She’s an old-school journalist, a drinker with a writing problem. She’s also prone to self-harm, and Sharp Objects can be understood as an investigation into the psychology behind her cutting — though that makes it sound like the kind of story that has an uplifting message. And having seen seven of the show’s eight episodes, I have concluded that its compelling message is: “Damn, s—’s f—ed.”
A reporter in St. Louis, Camille is sent on an assignment that requires a personal touch. Her editor’s intrigued by the fact that two teen girls have been found dead in the town of Wind Gap, where Camille was raised. It’s not a happy homecoming. Vallée overlaps flashbacks and maybe-hallucinations over Camille’s arrival. The implications are bleak. We get snippets of Young Camille (Sophia Lillis), memories of nightmare events ending dreamy innocence. Lillis looks so much like a young Adams that you suspect either time travel or cloning. (She was the one lady Loser in It, so it’s fair to say Lillis has the “nostalgia teens in horror forest” subgenre on lock.)
The cast of characters awaiting Camille is right out of a Broadway melodrama, or a locked-room mystery. Her mom is a matriarch of the High Southern tradition. Everyone seems to work for her — including Police Chief Vickery (Matt Craven), who isn’t too happy that a big-city journalist is sniffing around his case. But he’s also weathering the invasion of Detective Richard Willis (Chris Messina), a Kansas City cop sent to tiny Wind Gap to assist with the investigation.
Camille has a young half-sister, Amma (Eliza Scanlen), who’s the same age as the dead girls. And Camille and Amma have another sister, long-dead for gradually revealed reasons, whose absence is the darkhearted void at the center of the household.
Adams gives a great performance, strong even when it’s dissolving. She’s the escapee returning to the asylum, ruefully funny in her interactions with the go-nowhere remnants of her old high school life. But she also feels, deeply, the darkness on the edge of this town. Sharp Objects orients itself around the women of Wind Gap, specifically the women in Camille’s family. Adora has the fainting charms of a comic-strip Southern Belle. She tends to wear Edenic sundresses, the chromatic polar opposite of Camille’s black-on-blackest scar-covering wardrobe.
In the middle of these two — in the middle of everything, really — is Amma. Scanlen is the discovery of the summer. Amma has at least two faces, a sweetly devoted daughter who’s also a debaucherous skater kid. Her knack for shapeshifting suggests multiple interpretations of her relationships with Adora and Camille. There’s also a stepfather (Henry Czerny) enraptured with his sound system, a monument to paternal impotence.
The setting of Sharp Objects is miles and genres removed from the Cali-soap decadence of Big Little Lies. But you feel Vallée’s same talent for atmospherics. Little touches communicate addictive world-building. Vickery’s office has a window-unit air conditioner, which he constantly turns to for respite from the heat. Camille visits a local bar, a neon-lit dive as comfortable as the Big Little Lies wharf café. This is the kind of show where one whole episode depends on you paying close attention to flowers: who’s tending them, who’s running over them, who cares about the roses, who notices the thorns.
But the series has a midseason problem, a getting-the-hell-to-the-point problem. Certain evocative images get repetitive from misuse. Amma leads a full-fledged skater gang, a trio of teen girls who float through Wind Gap the way the Fates floated through Greek mythology. There’s a moment early on when Camille is driving through an empty downtown and sees the three girls skating in the distance out her window. It’s a stunning visual, nostalgically Americana and insidious all at once.
And then in episode 4 or 5, the skaters start to show up everywhere. It starts to feel synthetic, like when you realized that the Cheerios on Glee would never take off their uniform. A lot of stuff on Sharp Objects is like this; I lost count of how often Camille refilled her water bottle with vodka, but I got the point the first 327 times.
In the premiere, there are a couple of prime suspects for the murders. And for the vast majority of Sharp Objects, they are the suspects. This is by design. It’s a holistic mystery, less about the dark act than the society that led to the dark act. The history of Wind Gap is wild, and the bleak mood of Sharp Objects could inspire some chatter. (There’s a point where everyone seems guilty of something.) But the middle episodes meander. The penultimate episode is a stunner, and yet I worry that “You’ll love it if you watch the first seven episodes” is another criticism no regular person takes seriously. Who’s got the time?
The haunted, swooning mood of Sharp Objects works on me, though. Comparisons to short-run mystery sagas like True Detective are obvious, but this is more of a simmering meditation, a portrait of multigenerational female strife. Any scene with some combination of Adams, Clarkson, and Scanlen is marvelous. And Messina’s at Peak Messina here, gruff and tough and somehow the most naive person on screen. The prestigious collaboration has produced a brutal confection, sweet as an afternoon cocktail on the porch, bruised as a national hangover. B+
Sharp Objects (TV series)