For those who need a reprieve from dark and gritty television (really looking at you, Handmaid’s Tale), Sharp Objects may be something of a hard sell. The HBO miniseries, based on Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name, is a dark and twisted tale that chronicles decades of abuse and several murders in a small Missouri town. The series belongs entirely to Amy Adams, who stars as Camille Preaker, a St. Louis journalist who is sent back to the place where she grew up to write about the recent murders of two missing girls. The trip is its own horror show for Camille, who has to revisit the traumas of her past, including the deeply broken relationship with her icy mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson).
The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane once wrote of the poet Weldon Kees — who committed suicide in 1955 — that “there is no more volatile compound known to man than that of decorum and despair.” That sums up life in Wind Gap, Missouri, where Camille returns to find the muted disarray surrounding the murders. It’s better here to ignore unpleasant things and never speak of them, except perhaps in drunken whispers at garden parties. Camille ran away from all of this but could not escape her own darkness, which overcame her after the sudden death of her beloved sister Marian when they were children, and continued throughout her battles with self-mutilation, and more recently the death of a friend. From that and more, the shadow of loss hangs over every aspects of the series.
Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed last year’s Big Little Lies miniseries for HBO, paints Wind Gap with a gauzy brush, one that is both dreamy and nightmarish. The town speaks for itself, too, through the hum of the cicadas, the click of A/C units coming on, and the honky tonk in the background of the town’s only bar. Music is important, both for Camille and her step-father Alan (Henry Czerny), who each use it as a kind of self-medication, but silence is also vital, including the careful tiptoeing around Adora and Alan’s grand, museum-like house. Everything here is carefully crafted.
There’s also something exceptionally visceral about Sharp Objects, though; you can positively feel the heat and the oppression. Everyone is always sweating, always drinking, and always hiding their true feelings behind masks. Camille does so less than others, and she moves with a languid confidence through the town’s regular haunts. Vallée flashes to Camille’s memories, creating dynamic moments out of the quietest scenes in a way that makes you afraid to look away in case you miss an essential clue from her past. There is also a sense of dread that permeates the entire production, thanks in part to the particularly gruesome nature of the the murders. And yet, it all adds up to a story that is so immersive and compelling that it’s impossible not to get pulled in.
Adams gives a hypnotic performance as a woman who wants to stay focused but constantly loses herself in drink, song, and self-harm. It can be miserable to watch sad people suffering silently, but Adams imbues Camille with so much soul that she becomes grounded and knowable, perhaps most especially in her messiest moments. The same is not exactly true for the rest of the cast; Chris Messina, who plays an outsider detective brought in especially to help with the case, is fine but not particularly interesting. Clarkson, as Camille’s prim and proper mother, is often exceptional in the way she makes the cruelest, most cutting remark almost sound like a compliment, but occasionally it slides too far into melodrama. Eliza Scanlen, as Camille’s half-sister Amma, gives an intriguing performance, but falls prey to writing that makes her and her friends act and sound more like adults than small-town teens.
Sharp Objects, which was developed by and written in part by Marti Noxon (UnREAL, Dietland), in many ways feels like everything Season 2 of True Detective should have been. There’s a unnerving central mystery that’s wrapped up in southern gothic tones, investigated by people often at odds with one another, and complicated by a constant movement through time. The clues are all there to point viewers in the direction of the murderer, because time is a flat circle indeed in Sharp Objects, with Camille often mentally transposing the reality in front of her with difficult memories of the past. But she wraps those feelings up, constantly supplied with booze to help with making the necessary decorum among despair nothing more than a dull pain. For viewers — especially those who know what it feels like to have a complicated relationship with your hometown — it’s an acutely intense experience.
Sharp Objects premieres Sunday, July 8th on HBO.