There’s an interesting dichotomy between series that go through the whole pilot-to-pick-up route and those that are ordered to series right from the off. The former is often forced to rely on grabbing viewers (and purse strings holders) as soon as possible and ending on a note that’s guaranteed to leave everyone on the edge of their seats. A lot of the time, this can feel a tad off-putting, a little too eager to please. The latter, to which Sharp Objects belongs, can afford to be a bit more patient, a little more enigmatic and spend more time building atmosphere and intrigue, rather than having to rush to let you know why you should stick around.
Sharp Objects, HBO’s new prestige mini-series based on Gillian Flynn’s novel, fully embraces this approach. The premiere does hook you in, but in a more deliberate manner, primarily through Amy Adams’ stunningly nuanced performance. It lends Sharp Objects a quiet confidence that is far more compelling than unexpected twists or cliffhangers. Jean Marc Vallée, who also directed HBO’s Big Little Lies, paints the small town of Wind Gap in the same intricate detail as he used for Monterrey. Where that town’s veneer of success hid all manner of evils, here Wind Gap covers over its darkness with Southern hospitality – forced smiles and good manners papering over the staunch refusal to address the trauma beneath.
Adams plays Camille, a St Louis reporter assigned to cover the disappearances of two young girls in her hometown of Wind Gap. She protests, but her editor stands firm, clearly recognising the need for Camille to face up to some unresolved issues at home. Our first introduction to Camille is both disorientating and illuminating. Two teenage girls – one of whom is the spitting image of Amy Adams – rollerskate out to an old Southern mansion, creeping into the house and up the stairs. Through a bedroom door, they enter an apartment decorated with anachronistic elements, such as an Obama ‘Hope’ poster. In the bedroom, they find a redheaded woman fast asleep. The Adams lookalike stabs her in the hand and Amy Adams’ Camille wakes with a start. It was a dream, but possibly also a recollection, and the intruders were her younger self and her sister. Camille gets up and begins her day with some hard liquor.
Thus begins the running theme of the series premiere. Camille drinks her way through a startling amount of vodka, whiskey and bourbon over the course of the episode, the booze operating as a porous barrier against the memories of her childhood, which leak through as painful flashbacks for her and ominous portents for us, crisscrossing with reality. Vallée is a master of flashbacks, taking what can be an irritating, cliched expositional tool and turning it into something atmospheric and unsettling, just as he did with Reese Witherspoon’s memories of her tumultuous previous life in Wild.
Arriving in Wind Gap, Camille is both warmly welcomed and frozen out by the locals. Nobody wants to talk about the girls – one of whom has now turned up dead – save for that girl’s father, who behaves erratically and somewhat aggressively towards Camille. The police want nothing to do with her, save for the new detective, Richard Willis (Chris Messina) who, having been similarly kept at a distance, wants to drink with Camille but won’t discuss the case with her. A gaggle of teenagers hangs about, seemingly led by a blonde girl whose attire and skates recall Camille and her sister. We discover later that this is Camille’s half-sister Amma, a chameleon whose rebellious attitude vanishes beneath a dutiful, prim disposition at home. That rebellious attitude falters when she and Camille bear witness to the discovery of the second missing girl’s decomposing body in an alleyway.
And it’s at home that the show takes a turn into some kind of Lynchian interpretation of Tennessee Williams’ Southern Gothic. Patricia Clarkson’s portrayal of Camille’s mother is a wonder, all chiffon, high heels, amaretto sours and fragile tension. Her state of denial borders on psychotic, to the point of refusing to allow herself to even accept Camille’s reasons for returning home, stemming from the death of Camille’s sister Marian when they were children. We still don’t know what caused her death, but it’s clear that it has exposed serious fault lines within the family.
Our final glimpse of Camille in this episode is of her lowering herself into the bath, her entire body covered in scars that appear to be from self-harm. The scar that appears most prominently spells out a word: vanish.
Who killed Ann Nash and Natalie Keene? We’ll be running a constantly updated list of the suspects and evidence as the series unfolds. So far we have:
- Bob Nash, the father Ann Nash, the first girl to be murdered. His reaction to Camille’s questioning is definitely suspicious, first saying he’d rather she was murdered than raped and then getting aggressive when he misunderstands Camille’s question.
- John Keene, Natalie Keene’s brother. He lingers around the fringes of this episode and seems unfazed by the other kids taking things from Natalie’s memorial. Detective Willis doesn’t rule him out as a suspect when Camille asks him.