Culture

Film & Television

‘Sharp Objects’ blurs the edges

By Craig Mathieson
The cruel complexities of women’s lives propel this Amy Adams-led thriller

Impelled by both curiosity and self-preservation, newspaper journalist Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) drives around the empty streets of her Missouri hometown, Wind Gap. Covering the story of the murder of two local teenage girls, Camille circles the memorials and former haunts of the place she once left behind. Throughout Sharp Objects, the HBO psychological thriller that depicts her return, each drive-by from the reporter is marked by the same physical reaction: Camille’s head slowly tilting back into the headrest, a look on her face that conflates both diffidence and defiance.

That merging of different intentions, a struggle between accepting the soured status quo and believing you can take action against it, is the unsettling propellant that fuels this almost overpoweringly atmospheric adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2006 novel. The limited series, which is currently airing weekly on Foxtel’s Showcase channel, charts a world where girls are the unknowing playthings of traumas that then shape them as adults. Females get nasty labels in Wind Gap if they don’t conform, Camille tells a seconded police detective from Kansas City, Richard Willis (Chris Messina). “What are yours?” he asks. “Too many,” she replies.

Created by the filmmaker and television writer-producer Marti Noxon (UnREAL), with a writing staff that includes Flynn, Sharp Objects is a fascinating murder procedural that is reassembled from a female perspective. The rhythms of the investigation are tepid and uncertain, not so much because the case is inexplicable but because it seems like the killings are a natural outcome of Wind Gap’s cordially systematic failings. As the protagonist, Camille is not driven to surmount her failings and solve the heinous crimes; instead, the work is her salve, a juicy and practical distraction from her own struggles.

Everything feels slowed down in the summer heat of this narrative, and the crucial revelations that come to the fore are ultimately about Wind Gap and Camille’s experiences growing up there. Just out of rehab due to her long-held need to self-harm by cutting her skin – she hasn’t worn a skirt since college, Camille tells a teenage cutter during a flashback – Adams’ 30-something character is pulled one way and another by the demands of others and her own desires. When she arrives at her childhood home she lingers on the porch instead of going inside to greet her mother, and the memories come back like furtive friends sensing that the coast is now clear.

Her reluctance makes more sense once you witness her mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson). Clad in a pink dress and clutching an Amaretto Sour, she’s the town matriarch – the family business, a hog-slaughtering facility, is both Wind Gap’s economic crutch and bloodily totemic workplace. Privilege allows Adora adjust reality to her own perceptions, and she welcomes Camille by having the knives put away, a perfectly pitched judgment that soon gives way to acrimony when Camille starts interviewing locals – her locals, Adora seems to believe – for her colour-hungry newspaper.

There’s the high theatrical pitch of a Tennessee Williams mother to her, which Clarkson delivers with masterful self-regard and venom, but Adora is also indicative of how the relationships between women drive Sharp Objects. Camille’s stepfather, Alan (Henry Czerny), is shuttled to one side, but Camille’s teenage half-sister, Amma (Eliza Scanlen), a friend of the two dead girls, is like a mirror for Camille, reflecting back the high school student she once was, both before and after a momentous loss that still marks the family as clearly as words like “vanish” have risen in silvery scars on Camille’s oft-broken skin.

Prim at home, riskily rebellious outside it, Amma has all of puberty’s power and as yet bears none of its crosses. She circles Camille, trying to recruit her as a co-conspirator and lashing out when drunk. “I wasn’t nice when I was your age either,” concedes Camille, whose own bearings are managed by Evian bottles filled with vodka and the unspoken comfort of the knowledge that a bladed edge is never too far away. Camille is neither interested in evoking sympathy nor exacting revenge, and the broken middle ground she inhabits makes her motives uncertain but compelling.

In the 2014 feature film version of Flynn’s novel Gone Girl, adapted by the author and directed with acerbic authority by David Fincher, the plot’s celebrated turning point is the “Cool Girl” monologue, Amy’s (Rosamund Pike) repudiation of her marriage. Halfway through the eight-episode series, Sharp Objects has nothing so conclusive. Camille’s voice narrates the book, but not the show, where the focus is unevenly filled with her doubts and dalliances, her mistakes and her memories. She’s a wholly different type of unreliable narrator.

On screen, the past, and its damage, never seems more than a moment away. The director is French-Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée, who entered the mainstream with the feature films Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, before the latter’s star, Reese Witherspoon, recruited him for the 2017 series Big Little Lies. That show got at the cruel complexities of women’s lives, but where in Big Little Lies this led to the embrace of solidarity, in Sharp Objects the confrontations are politely corrosive and part of a veiled process that is rigged against women, but from which they cannot draw unity.

Old acquaintances’ smiles – which invariably are a judgment on her teenage sex life – as they remember Camille’s rebelliousness, and the gently intrusive editing allow for Camille’s thoughts of her youth (where she is played by Sophie Lillis) to bleed into her return; multiple scenes connect Camille past and present. There’s a sequence, for example, when present-day Camille is lying in bed, and her younger self jumps up and bounds out the door, the camera following younger Camille before returning to settle on present-day Camille. The editing in these moments is a kind of free association, keyed to Camille’s fraught psychological state.

Wind Gap’s folklore includes a ghostly figure known as “The Woman in White”, whom a local boy claims to have seen snatching one of the murdered girls; like every clue in this menacingly beguiling series, it applies to both the criminal investigation and to Camille personally. The Woman in White is a myth that also serves as a symbol of the many women, Camille included, who have suffered through Wind Gap’s history. There is much to solve in Sharp Objects, but little of it is easily understood. “You hate this place,” Amma tells Camille, “but you love dead girls.”

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is the film critic for the Sunday Age newspaper and the author of five books about popular music, including 2000’s The Sell-In and 2009’s Playlisted.

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Sharp Objects

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