On Sunday, July 8, HBO will premiere its buzzy Amy Adams-starring miniseries Sharp Objects, a crime thriller, decaying family portrait, and study in country-fried trauma all in one. While the eight-episode saga is an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2006 novel of the same name, it’s impossible not to think of a different pop culture touchstone while watching the drama: 2017’s juggernaut of an HBO miniseries-turned-regular-series, Big Little Lies. Both are stunning murder mysteries entirely directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, given to us by HBO and inspired by bestselling novels written by women authors.
But once you look past the surface of these two projects, you’ll see they have the same heart as well. Sharp Objects, like Big Little Lies, is obsessed with the violence committed against women and by women. That is what makes the upcoming series, show-run by TV veteran Marti Noxon and executive produced by author Flynn, a worthy successor to its network sibling.
While the entire mystery of BLL is who the hell got murdered at trivia night, we immediately know who the victims of Sharp’s brutal violence are. They’re two little girls from the fictional town of Wind Gap, Missouri. At the start of the series, one young girl, Ann Nash (Kaegan Baron) has already been murdered, while another, Natalie Keene (Jessica Treska), is missing and (despite all efforts to believe otherwise) presumed dead.
These crimes are what bring Wind Gap’s prodigal daughter, and our antiheroine, crime reporter Camille Preaker (five-time Academy Award nominee and executive producer Adams) back home to her humid, claustrophobic, alcohol-soaked town. A town that might technically be a part of the Midwest, yet, with its dedication to the “rebel flag” and slavery defender John C. Calhoun, feels like it is still gripped by a deeply Confederate fever.
Although murder might be the reason Camille, a functioning alcoholic with decades of tragedy clawing at her, is drawn back to Wind Gap, the story is quickly spun into a much larger, gripping Southern gothic tale. This is because Camille’s home life is just as compelling, if not more so, than figuring out who is murdering little girls and subsequently ripping their teeth out. Yes, you see the corpses of toothless children and yes, you deserve to know that beforehand.
Camille hails from the kind of topsy-turvy house of Southern horrors that Tennessee Williams wishes he were alive to see. The imposing manor is presided over by Camille’s mother, Adora Crellin (neé Preaker), played by a scenery gobbling Patricia Clarkson in all her Gone With The Wind-but-menacing glory, a ridiculously wealthy pig farming heiress and the unofficial Lady Of Wind Gap. On the outside — both literally in terms of her behavior outside of her nightmarish home and figuratively in terms of her temperament — Adora is every bit the Southern belle: gracious to all, impeccably coiffed in luxurious gowns, and always prepared to offer a stiff, refreshing porch-ready cocktail.
But, there is a foreboding darkness living inside Adora, which is unraveled through her sly cruelty to her eldest daughter.
The investigation into the cruelty of women is the raw, beating heart of Sharp Objects. It is there in Adora and Camille’s verbal tussles. It is there in every breath of Amma Crellin (Eliza Scanlen), Camille’s teenage half-sister and the hell-raising, hard-partying It-girl of Wind Gap, when she leaves the punishing walls of her home. And it is there most during every second Camille is on the screen. Because, there is no one Camille is crueler to than herself.
So much of Sharp Objects is driven by learning how Camille’s long history of trauma — from her mother, from the slowly-revealed family tragedy that haunts her to this day, from a town that hates its women — has festered into a life fueled by self-inflicted pain. The most obvious form of Camille’s's self-cruelty is her lifetime of self-harm, which becomes a visceral anchor for the series. But, there are the smaller ways Adams brings Camille’s internal torture to life.
There’s the mechanical way she pours unlimited vodka into unlimited Evian water bottles, as if she has long figured out a boozily dulled world is the only one in which the journalist can live. While clear alcohol might be Camille's greatest crutch, she also relies on angsty rock music, the kind that is alien to her hometown, to get her through the day. Of course, that music comes with its own tragic backstory. Even the way Camille dresses, in all-black, body-shrouding outfits that look positively deadly in the oppressive Missouri heat, remind us this is someone who needs all the protection she can get from the outside world. As premiere “Vanish” proves, Camille’s body only sweats when she is naked and outside of her dark little shell.
While some series would explain away Camille's agonized path with straightforward flashbacks, Sharp Objects does not. Instead, it’s a show made of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them flashes of gothic, tortured memories and time jumps that fold into the current action. Scenes from the years ago flow seamlessly into Camille’s present, giving us one of television’s best-ever depictions of how the fingerprints of the past can be found all over the present. Camille might be living in sometime circa 2008, as evidenced by the Obama campaign poster in her St. Louis apartment and her ever-present iPod, but the ghosts of her violent past are sitting right there with her.
All the mechanisms whirring to keep this sweaty little Southern horror story going will likely lead Sharp Objects to the type of Emmy’s domination the Big Little Lies crew enjoyed last year. And, it will keep you from ever looking away.
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