Just in time for pit-stain season, HBO has another limited series about the twisted lives of well-off white Americans, based on a novel and directed in its entirety by Jean-Marc Vallée. But Sharp Objects, which airs its first episode on July 8, isn’t the quasi-guilty pleasure that Big Little Lies — based on Liane Moriarty’s 2014 novel, and also directed by Vallée — seemed to be when it premiered in the winter of 2017. No, this series, adapted from Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn’s debut novel, is a more prickly entity.
Amy Adams stars as Camille Preaker, a journalist for the St. Louis Chronicle with a history of self-harm. When her avuncular boss (Miguel Sandoval) assigns her to cover the murder of a teenage girl in her hometown of Wind Gap, at the southern tip of Missouri, Camille reluctantly tosses a couple of bags in the trunk of her car; we hear the clinking of glass. In the driver’s seat, she transfers the contents of a miniature liquor bottle into a plastic water bottle and plugs her smashed smartphone into her car’s stereo system. Led Zeppelin’s “I Can’t Quit You Babe” blasts. This is not going to be a happy homecoming.
Camille’s mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson), receives her coldly in her sprawling, dollhouse-like home; her milquetoast stepfather (Henry Czerny) retreats to his study with records and a pair of noise-canceling headphones. Camille barely knows her teenage stepsister, Amma (Eliza Scanlen), who plays the baby in front of her mother but changes into short skirts and tank tops when she’s out roller-skating with her friends through the small, dull town. Right away, Camille encounters a sexy detective, Richard, played by Chris Messina, and the two circle each other for several episodes. Elizabeth Perkins pops up as a swaggering, boozy Southern dame who drawls things like, “It’s hotter than a whore in church today.”
In the hands of another director, Sharp Objects might be one eye-rolling cliché after another. Flynn’s novel drops the sullen, scarred Camille in the middle of a Southern Gothic murder mystery, but Vallée seems intent on disrupting the rhythms of genre. The show does at times tread well-worn territory, particularly in an early episode in which an adult Camille, in a series of flashbacks, checks herself into a hospital after cutting herself and bunks with a teenage girl who shares her affliction. (“You’re lucky you can wear skirts,” Camille tells her. “I haven’t worn a skirt since college.”) But Sharp Objects is more than a murder mystery with a ripe female body at its center — in fact, it interrogates that very formula. The series treats female suffering — dead little girls — as a staple of American life; in a country ruled by men, it’s not a bug but a feature.
The writers, who include Flynn as well as series creator Marti Noxon (Mad Men, UnREAL, Dietland), don’t exactly hit viewers over the head with the retrograde gender politics of small-town America, but those dynamics are firmly on display. When another girl is found dead and her brother is seen weeping all over town, he becomes a suspect, because a young man who cries in public must be a sociopath. When Camille gives Richard a tour of the town’s past crime scenes, all the victims of the incidents she describes are teenage girls. She’s casual in her recounting of the terrible things done to them, as if to suggest sexual violence is just a way of life, a ritual most girls encounter on their way to adulthood. Each year, Adora hosts Calhoun Day, a Southern pride festival for which the town’s high schoolers put on a play reenacting Wind Gap’s most celebrated event: The time the wife of a Confederate soldier was tied to a tree and raped by multiple men rather than betray her kin.
It’s the container for all this that makes Sharp Objects unique — mesmerizing, even. Some sequences have the unsettling tenor of a horror film, as Vallée’s camera stalks Camille while she winds through her mother’s maze of hallways, her long-suppressed memories and dreams clashing with scenes of the present. Vallée films and edits the way people think; scenes unfold according to the addled logic of the deepest subconscious, the images that pop into our heads before we can rationalize them or put them in logical order. It’s not always clear what’s real and what’s a manifestation of Camille’s inner mind, and Vallée lets the viewer sit with that confusion; some early shots only make sense in retrospect, but even then the director resists the urge to make the connection clear. That’s our job.
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Few directors are as effective at fusing music to image as Vallée, but the use of music in Sharp Objects is more subtle than the crowd-pleasing classic-rock soundtrack to Big Little Lies. If a song is playing in the background of a scene, Vallée will leave the sound diegetic, faint but persistent. He’s not afraid to cut the noise off completely, and some scenes feature long stretches of silence, as if to force the viewer to really look rather than rely on familiar aural patterns. Camille’s childhood flashbacks are usually pin-drop silent, as if she’s underwater. Often, the soundtrack is simply the noise of roller skates scratching on pavement as Amma and her friends swoop down deserted streets, or the undeniably ominous sound of a boy banging a drum during a rehearsal for the Calhoun Day play.
The contours of the story become more recognizable as Camille and Richard close in on the mystery, but Vallée still does his darnedest to jolt viewers awake with his destabilizing approach. Camille, too, is not your typical Strong Female Character, and Adams plays her not like some angst-ridden, Girl, Interrupted cliché of a troubled girl gone wild. Her pain isn’t sexy; Adams is beautiful, but the costume designers dress her in ratty long-sleeved shirts and jeans, her long hair a little unkempt, her body a reflection of Camille’s diet of liquor and candy bars. Weariness is her dominant mode; she’s broken, wounded, although Adams lets some warmth shine through despite the character’s edge, a kind of exhaustion that manifests as Southern sweetness.
It’s a fitting approach to a character who turns her pain on herself, as so many girls learn to do from such a young age. It’s hard to miss the message that a suffering woman is a beautiful thing.
Sharp Objects premieres July 8 on HBO.