TV: Sharp Objects

Living in the United States in 2020, it’s difficult to watch any show these days without seeing it through the corrupting lens of current events. HBO’s miniseries Sharp Objects (2018)—based on a novel by Gillian Flynn—is yet another example, an excellent, intriguing dark mystery that’s also quite difficult to watch at times. Now that the U.S. is a staggeringly mismanaged, aspiring third-world nation run by deranged, malevolent gas-lighters, one doesn’t so much watch Sharp Objects—and especially Patricia Clarkson’s superb portrayal of a passive-aggressive, emotionally abusive parent—so much as suffer through it. As a metaphor for weathering a daily barrage of infuriating psychological torture from our abusive parent in the White House, this one might have hit a little too close to home for me.

Of course, it’s possible that weird reaction may say more about me than the series, because Sharp Objects is a terrific, macabre puzzler that’s sure to enthrall fans of thoughtful, slow-building mystery. It also provides Amy Adams with a meaty role: Camille Preaker, a St. Louis journalist with a troubled past. Camille is sent, by her avuncular editor Frank Curry (Miguel Sandoval), back to her rural home town of Wind Gap, Missouri to chronicle the impact of two possibly connected child murders on the community. Camille, who left a lot of bad memories and emotional baggage in Wind Gap, reluctantly accepts the assignment, anesthetizing herself with alcohol to face her demons. Unfortunately, the job propels her back in the orbit of her deeply dysfunctional family. Her mother Adora (Clarkson) is a controlling, reputation-obsessed drama queen. Her taciturn stepfather Alan (Henry Czerny) smolders with buried resentments. And her young stepsister Amma (Eliza Scanlen) is a shifty troublemaker whose goody two shoes facade conceals a penchant for teenaged rebellion. As the story unfolds, details of the murders of the two young girls gradually emerge, but Camille’s investigation faces roadblocks. Local sheriff Vickery (Matt Craven) sees Camille as a meddling outsider, while visiting homicide detective Richard Willis (Chris Messina) is guarded and skeptical. But as the mystery in Wind Gap unfolds, so does the lore of Camille’s past, as her journey home triggers the buried traumas that shaped her.

Sharp Objects creates an outstanding atmosphere of stultifying small-town ennui, and populates its mystery with a roster of nuanced characters, headlined by Adams in a gutsy, tense lead performance. Clarkson, though, steals every scene, practically bathing her wayward daughter in subtle insults and hurtful judgement throughout. Indeed, if anything distracted me from the unfolding dual mysteries, it was the rage I experienced on Camille’s behalf as Adora’s insidious psychological warfare builds up. Fortunately, Adams wields plenty of rallying accessibility as the tortured hero, and her touching rapport with Curry and connections with sympathetic acquaintances in Wind Gap combine to lend her mission of discovery an undercurrent and hope and courage. The rest of the cast is uniformly solid, with Scanlen in particular making a fine impression in challenging support. And the mystery, while not particularly involved, is integrated well into Camille’s emotional journey, and leads to a not particularly surprising, but ultimately satisfying resolution—plus, a chilling final line of dialogue. Overall, it’s an engrossing, emotionally charged slow burn, even if it takes a little fortitude to confront it in these troubled times.

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