Sharp Objects review: 'Not so much a slow-burner as a slow-smoulderer, and it's mesmeric'
The atmosphere in Sharp Objects is so thick, you could cut it with a knife. In fact, the first episode of this eight-part HBO miniseries, based on Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn’s 2006 debut novel, has far more atmosphere than plot.
But what a weird, woozy, wonderful atmosphere it is; brilliantly whipped up by director Jean-Marc Vallée, who was behind last year’s smash hit Big Little Lies.
You can practically feel the suffocating, shirt-sticking mugginess of Wind Gap, the dull, decaying town at “the bottom of Missouri”, as newspaper reporter Camille Preaker (a red-raw performance by the terrific Amy Adams) describes it.
Wind Gap — where the only winds that blow seem to be ill ones — is Camille’s home town. Or it used to be before she escaped.
She’s returned reluctantly, dispatched by the editor of the second-rate Chicago paper she works for, to do a piece on the shocking crimes rocking the community. A year earlier, a pre-teen girl was mutilated and murdered. Now, a second girl has gone missing.
The local cops, led by chief of police Vickery (Matt Craven), are stumped and have called in hotshot Kansas detective Richard Willis (Chris Messina) to help.
The damaged protagonist compelled to return to the scene of their unhappy childhood and confront old demons they thought they’d left behind is a venerable thriller trope.
In Camille’s case, however, she brought her demons with her when she left. She’s an alcoholic, constantly knocking back vodka disguised in an Evian bottle, which fools no one, and balanced on a knife-edge between self-preservation and self-destruction.
When she arrives in Wind Gap, her luggage consists primarily of a couple of chocolate bars and a couple of dozen Absolut miniatures.
Though it’s only hinted at obliquely in the opening episode, Camille has a history of self-harming (hence the title) and is not long out of a psychiatric hospital. Flashbacks — in which she’s played by Sophia Lillis, the marvellous 16-year-old actress from It — teasingly reveal the source of her trauma: the death of her younger sister.
Returning to Wind Gap also means confronting her mother,
Adora, magnificently played by Patricia Clarkson, an actress who’s been criminally underused over the years and doesn’t get nearly enough parts worthy of her talent.
Adora is a marvellous character: an authentic Old South, old-money monster, straight out of a Tennessee Williams play. Her greeting to Camille is as chilly as clinking ice cubes.
If Adora regards Camille’s decision to leave the family home — an opulent, dimly-lit mansion built on the fortune from the family hog-slaughtering business — all those years ago as a personal affront, she seems to regard her return, and the possibility it may bring embarrassment upon her, as an even greater one.
If Camilla ever had any place in her mother’s affections, she’s been displaced by her Amma (Eliza Scanlen), her teenage half-sister. Amma is sweet in the way cyanide is sweet.
She wafts around the house in the little-girl cardigans and summer dresses Adora chooses for her, as though trying to keep her buttoned into a state of permanent pre-pubescence. Outside, in her “civilian” outfit, as she calls it, of shorts, baggy shirts and roller blades, she oozes mean-girl toxicity.
Sharp Objects is billed as a psychological thriller, but don’t expect another True Detective, which is how some people seem to be trying to sell it, presumably based on a shared Southern Gothic aesthetic and the lead character’s self-laceration,physical as well as psychological.
The only overtly horrific moment in the first episode is the discovery of the previously missing, now murdered, young girl’s body, posed like a grotesque mannequin on a window ledge in an alleyway.
The finer details of the case and the possible suspects are, at least for the moment, nebulous. It’s not so much a slow-burner as a slow-smoulderer, and it’s mesmeric.