One of the most unforgettable moviegoing experiences I’ve had was watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master projected in 70mm. The director used that classically oversized format not merely to capture scale and breadth, as tradition dictates, but also—in the film’s most remarkable moment—to present us with the eyes of Amy Adams, in a close-up blessedly larger than life. Towering across the screen, those eyes held a world unto themselves as they gradually changed colour and reduced viewers to abject wonderment. Anderson is an incredible artist, and those eyes are a painting.
In Sharp Objects, a miniseries adapting the novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn, who wrote the alarmingly popular thriller Gone Girl, those eyes return and again hold worlds of pain. Adams, magnificent in everything from American Hustle to Arrival to Doubt while making another Enchanted movie, dazzles in a show directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who scored a smash hit with Big Little Lies last year. In India, the show is currently streaming on Hotstar, with four of the eight episodes already out and new ones released every Monday.
The show is a thriller, with Adams playing a reporter assigned to her backwoods hometown to cover a couple of deeply troubling and potentially serial murders. The victims are barely teenaged girls, and her character, Camille Preaker, is given this story because she knows her way around the town and its people—which include many a demon from her past. Camille is a daytime drunk who routinely falls prey to bouts of self-abuse, cutting into her skin with blades and needles. Everyone in the town looks at her a certain way, not least her own mother, one who is so saccharine she could be arsenic. It is a gripping, disturbing and well-crafted series, though the going initially feels a bit too slow till the thrills really kick in.
Here’s a confession: I watched the second episode first. This was purely by accident and I kicked myself for it, but what this did was give me a great (albeit confusing) start to the show, one that demanded attentiveness and offered no setup of the premise. I was stunned by how readily the show threw the viewer in the deep-end and—in a series that shuffles time like a deck of cards and moves frequently between Camille’s past and present and visions—the second episode felt like a great first episode. The actual first episode, which I got to right after, felt a lot more laboured, with artistic shots of the heroine entering the town while listening to songs about coming back home, meeting her venomous mother, having her first encounter with the police chief. I was interested in the first episode purely because the second episode had me curious, and perhaps if I’d seen the first episode as planned, I might not have made it to the second.
This is because the ingredients are the trademarks of the genre: the gruesome remains, the unreliable character witnesses, the flavour of small-town Americana, the suspects, and the suspects who immediately appear too suspicious to even be suspects. It is all tropes and texture, and given a slow-burn pace, they take a while to genuinely engage our interest (I’m not suggesting that you should start with the second episode too, but let’s just say it wouldn’t be a bad idea).
Adams is predictably fantastic, and her role is a tightrope walk. It is profoundly disquieting to watch a protagonist lacerate herself, to dig into her own skin to etch a reminder or an unvoiced curse, and Adams gives these ministrations a prickly authenticity that simultaneously sickens and compels the viewer. You may not want to see a heroine this damaged, but because Adams imbues her with both vulnerability and defiance, it is hard not to wonder what broke her. That becomes a bigger question than the murder itself.
It is a repetitive show—there must be hundreds of shots of Camille adding vodka to her bottle of water, for instance— but the actors make up for it. One of the best performances comes from Eliza Scanlen, who plays Camille’s young half-sister, Amma, a dollhouse-building, detective-teasing weirdo who is as impossible to read as she is impossible to look away from. The marvellous Patricia Clarkson plays the immaculately named Adora Preaker, Camille’s picture-perfect mother who doesn’t bother to hide the persistent forking of her tongue. The way she treats Camille is unbearable and unforgettable—and, because of the actress, understandable.
It is the words that get under the skin the deepest. This show may be brimming with razor blades and murder weapons, and yet it is the unbridled tongue that feels like the sharpest object of all.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.
He tweets at @RajaSen