Anyone who watched and admired HBO’s Big Little Lies, and many did, noted the emphatic style that Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée brought to it.
The manner in which he contrasted the soaring vistas of Northern California with the tight spaces in which the characters mainly existed. The elliptical way they perceived reality, from the numerous scenes of characters watching through car windows and seeing others in mirrors. The technique and flair he brought to it was subtly key to the intensity.
Well, Vallée isn’t directing the second season of that show. Instead, he’s done another miniseries mystery.
Sharp Objects (starts Sunday, HBO, 9 p.m. ET), heavily promoted by HBO, is a murder mystery, but not really about cops finding a killer. It’s mainly about a self-destructive, damaged female reporter doing the leg work. She’s played by Amy Adams and this strange, very slow-burning production belongs almost entirely to Adams and Jean-Marc Vallée.
Based on Gillian Flynn’s gothic murder-mystery novel (published years before her novel Gone Girl), Sharp Objects is a summer indulgence of sorts, but far from light. In fact, it’s a strain at times: opaque, disorienting, with a very dark erotic charge and at times a descent into hell. It’s admirable in many ways but vexing as it pokes away at the layers of deep, perverse debasement of its central character.
That’s Camille Preaker (Adams), who is dishevelled from the get-go, barely hanging on to a job as a reporter at a city newspaper. Why she’s mostly drunk, chain-smoking and seems to live in the same clothes, day after day, goes unexplained for a long time. You just know there’s some fierce hurt there and it isn’t a failed romance.
Her editor (Miguel Sandoval) tells her to go to tiny Wind Gap, her hometown, because a young girl has gone missing. The previous summer there was another missing girl, found murdered. He tells Camille to visit, portray the town and dig around. Wind Gap, in Missouri and with a population of 2,000, is a dying town. Industries have failed but the town clings to hope (there are strategically placed political posters for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to give you an economic backstory) and it has its little local aristocracy, of which Camille’s mother Adora, (nicely played by Patricia Clarkson going into Tennessee Williams-gothic mode) is one.
Camille’s ragged path into the town’s heart and the mysterious murders of two young women goes through Adora and Camille’s half-sister Amma (Eliza Scanlen), the latter reminding Camille of herself. Part of the slow-burning quality is the drop-by-drop revelation of the twisted mental state of a teenage girl trapped in a small town, her sexual presence an energy force that disorients her and disturbs many men.
Not that it is easy to get the picture. Vallée uses every possible film and editing technique to blend the past and the present. A character opens a door and enters a room, but is actually entering time past. Camille looks down a familiar back alley from her youth and the viewer isn’t sure if we’re seeing the present or the past. You need your wits about you watching this one.
The only thing that is crystal-clear is that Camille has major demons in the baggage she carries around. You may wonder at first why she wears the same jeans and sweatshirt all the time. And then you figure out there are scars, literal and figurative, that are being hidden. Long ago experiences, that might be a dream or distortion, seem to haunt her but, at the same time, arouse her. There is an awful lot of deep-layered female self-hate and doubt under the surface here. This is very much an intensely female-centric mystery. The showrunner is Marti Noxon, and there’s a team of mostly women writers, including Gillian Flynn, and the story is, eventually, firmly fixed on three generations of small-town women, as the male characters fade into the background.
Adams is excellent and there is already Emmy talk about this performance. But she is almost matched by Sophia Lillis as the young Camille, who enters the drama often, as sharp memories cause Camille to confront the young woman she was. There’s trauma there, in what happened to Camille as a teenager and what drove her to endless drinking as an adult. Vallée lets the trauma twist in the wind for ages, carefully unsettling the viewer with the confusion of past and present.
Sharp Objects is gripping enough but requires patience. It’s non-linear in structure, and be prepared, because while it’s a murder mystery on the surface, it’s about the exploitation and manipulation of women and the self-damage that results. Summer popcorn entertainment, it ain’t.