Although this eight-part HBO limited series has been advertised as a murder-mystery, it's really a character study, with the murder plot functioning primarily as an impetus to facilitate engagement with the characters surrounding it. Nothing wrong with that, of course; the first season of True Detective (2014)
(still one of the finest seasons of TV ever made) worked as well as it did not because of the ostensible whodunnit, but because of the psychological deep-dive into its two central characters. Sharp Objects is similarly interested not in who's behind a pair of murders in a small Missouri town, but in how those murders affect a trio of women caught up in the investigation. Feminine in design rather than inherently feminist, the show is a portrait of tainted motherhood and corrupted sisterhood, and focuses on internecine inter-generational conflict, matrilineal dysfunction, and how difficult it can be to escape from past trauma. But whilst the acting is exceptional, and the show is well directed and edited, much like the first season of Big Little Lies (2017)
, it left me wholly unengaged, completely uninterested in any of the characters, and fighting interminable boredom for much of its eight hours (it's yet another example of one of the worst elements of Prestige TV; series which are far, far longer than they need to be).
Sharp Objects tells the story of Camille Preaker (an exceptional Amy Adams
), a reporter for the St. Louis Chronicle, who is sent back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri to report on the murder of two young girls. A barely-functioning alcoholic prone to carving words into her flesh, Camille is ill-prepared for the effect Wind Gap has on her psyche. Central amongst her demons is her mother, Adora (a spectacular Patricia Clarkson
), who looks down on Camille with barely-concealed disappointment. Camille is especially haunted by the memory of her younger sister Marian, who died when they were still children, but in the years since Camille moved away, Adora re-married and had another child, Amma (Eliza Scanlen
, in a breakout role), who fascinates Camille with her dual personality - dutiful daughter from another era who wears elaborate dresses and plays with a doll's house, and roller-blading lollypop sucking teenage temptress.
Based on the 2006 Gillian Flynn
novel, Sharp Objects was written primarily by showrunner Marti Noxon
and Flynn herself, with directorial duties handled by Jean-Marc Vallée
, who also helmed the aforementioned first season of Big Little Lies. Vallée was also lead editor, and this is important insofar as the editing is the show's calling card, as he attempts to draw us into Camille's psyche via fleeting snippets of childhood memories. The editing rhythms will definitely throw some people off initially, with the frequent one second (or less) cutaways recalling Oliver Stone
's "horizontal editing". However, a more apt comparison would be the free-associative editing style of films such as Hiroshima mon amour (1959)
, Zerkalo (1975)
, and probably the best evocation of memory ever put on screen, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)
. Indeed, the technique is not entirely unlike Marcel Proust
's use of "involuntary memory" in À la recherche du temps perdu - so, for example, adult Camille lies in bed and stares at a crack on the ceiling and when we cut back to the bed, she's a child looking at that same crack; adult Camille is shown opening a door, and we cut to child Camille entering a room; adult Camille hears a song and closes her eyes, and when she opens them, she's a child listening to the song on the radio.
This editing style inculcates us into Camille's fractured mind, whilst also hinting at the nature of her trauma, without ever being too explicitly revealing. As will be discussed in a moment, Vallée grossly overuses the technique, neutering it of its potency, but that notwithstanding, it's a good example of the importance of "show, don't tell", as well as a great example of content generating form and form simultaneously giving rise to content; the memories are always tied to Camille's fragmented psychology, with the brief snippets of recollection acting like splinters impinging on her adult existence.
Another interesting aesthetic aspect of the show is its sense of place. Taking place during a hot summer in which the entire cast are permanently sweating, one can practically feel the humidity rising from the screen and smell the pig farm on which so many of the town's people work. But it's not just the sense of tangibility; at times, Wind Gap comes across as surreal enough to be the location of a David Lynch
film. The introduction to the town, for example, is a series of long tracking shots which show next-to-no people, as if the place has been abandoned. Later we see Amma and two of her friends perpetually roller-blading around town like the 21st century equivalent of the Moirai, we also meet a little boy who lives with his meth-addicted mother and who carries a gun to ensure their safety.
Thematically, the show covers a lot of ground, almost all of it tied to female experience, specifically motherhood/daughterhood. Adora is a woefully bad mother who made little secret of the fact that she preferred Marian to Camille; when Camille arrives at the house upon her return to Wind Gap, rather than be happy to see her, Adora icily tells her, "I'm afraid the house is not up to par for visitors". In a rare moment of openness, as Camille struggles to understand why Adora treats her the way she does, Adora tells her, "you can't get close. That's your father. And it's why I think I never loved you. You were born to it, that cold nature. I hope that's of some comfort to you". Later she admits that what she wanted from Camille more than anything was the one thing Camille couldn't give her - she wanted Camille to need her.
In a more general sense, the show deals with how women respond to familial trauma. It doesn't engage with feminism at a political or cultural level, but it certainly does so at a personal level, arguing that the pain experienced by abused women is just as valid as that experienced by abused men, that the manifestations of trauma can be just as catastrophic, and that the anger engendered can be just as self-destructive. We're very used to seeing stories focused on angry, damaged, hard-drinking male characters with dark backgrounds who must fight to control the violence within them, but Sharp Objects is a story focused on the female equivalent of that trope. Indeed, Wind Gap is a town where women are locked into the virtuous virgin/rampant harlot binary, a binary created by men. It's a place where a woman's worth correlates directly with her femininity, her maternal instincts, and her obedient acceptance of her place in androcentric societal structures - everything Camille is not.
However, for all that, I couldn't get into Sharp Objects, and by no means did I enjoy it. The biggest problem is the pace. Yes, I understand it's a character drama, not a plot-heavy murder-mystery, but so too was the first season of True Detective and never once did I feel that show was moving too slow. With Sharp Objects, as episode after episode after episode ended flatly, eventually I just stopped caring. Aside from a major incident in the first episode, and a couple of big reveals in the penultimate and last episodes, almost nothing happens. And that's not hyperbole, I mean it very literally. Tied to this is that the show is far, far too long. The novel is 254 pages, and could easily have been adapted in a four-episode run, but trying to stretch it out over eight (it runs 385 minutes) means that there are long periods were the narrative stops dead, with the characters not interesting enough to take up the slack. Elsewhere, the flashback editing is used so often that it loses its potency and ends up feeling like filler designed only to artificially prolong the runtime. It also starts to feel like Vallée is so in love with the technique that he's using it arbitrarily rather than in the service of character or plot. Additionally, the show abounds in clichés - from the alcoholic hard-as-nails journalist to the incompetent local police chief to the out of town detective to whom nobody listens to the gossiping women to the various suspects who are obviously red herrings. Vallée also has a tendency to overuse certain images, thus robbing them of their effectiveness - Amma and her friends roller-blading around town, Amma playing silently with her giant dollhouse, shots of the child Camille being chased through the woods by a group of jocks, shots of Camille filling a water bottle with vodka.
There's a lot to admire in Sharp Objects, but precious little to like. Although not exactly a work of post-MeToo fempowerment, it certainly has a female-centric perspective, and its examination of issues usually associated with men is interesting, saying some fascinating things about female trauma. The performances are top-notch and the editing is decent (albeit overused), but all in all, the show did little for me. I understand that it's designed holistically rather than cumulatively, and I have no problem with that. But the pace is enervating and the characters just aren't interesting enough to fill such a lengthy runtime.