REVIEW: Sharp Objects (2018 – Mini-Series)

Series Poster – HBO

The following is a review of HBO’s Sharp Objects — A Mini-Series Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée.

I had been looking forward to this show for quite some time when I first sat down to watch the first episode of Sharp Objects, which is titled Vanish. The entirety of HBO’s latest well-cast mini-series was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée who, just last year, was the talk of the town with his first HBO series Big Little Lies — one of my favorite shows from 2017. It only made me more interested in the show when I learned that Sharp Objects, his new mini-series, was based on a novel by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote Gone Girl.

When Vanish was over, I was awestruck by the brilliant mini-series starter. This was a disturbingly mysterious Southern Gothic mini-series presented with brilliant editing and with a leading lady — Amy Adams — who I am a big fan of. When I then was equally as impressed by the second episode — Dirt — I did something I’ve never done before with an ongoing television adaptation: I bought the book.

I ended up reading Gillian Flynn’s original novel of the same name all in one sitting in maybe seven or eight hours. It was a real page-turner, as you can imagine. I didn’t ruin the show for myself, thankfully. And it pleases me to be able to say that I think the mini-series, with the notable changes having been taken into account, lives up to the promise of the book. I can’t imagine someone doing a better job of adapting this novel than what Vallée and series creator Marti Noxon have done here.

Sharp Objects is an HBO mini-series that follows a female reporter, Camille Preaker (played by Amy Adams), with an alcohol problem and some personal issues. Camille is, at the start of the mini-series, sent back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri to investigate and write about the murder of a young girl and the disappearance of another.

This is an unwelcome assignment for the St. Louis-based reporter, as that town brings back bad memories of her childhood. But those memories are never far away from Camille. The reporter is time and time again reminded of her past by the carved-in words on her body that she, herself, had put there during years of self-harm. She now has to look her cynical socialite mother, Adora (played by Patricia Clarkson), in her eyes again knowing full well that she disapproves of her and her career.

“My demons are not remotely tackled. They’re just mildly concussed.” – From the second episode – Dirt.

I’ll leave the plot description right there, and I’ll promise a mystery that the writing room and the director have taken their time with to solid effect. This is a story about a struggling character digging into and searching through her old scars — both physical and mental scars — masquerading as a slow-burn murder mystery drama.

But, rest assured, those watching the show for the mystery should be satisfied by the way the story unfolds and the way it concludes with a disturbing punchline (watch the closing credits). It is a show about coming to terms with what happened in your past, which may overpower and consume you whole as you try to make up for what once happened. It is a show about deep personal trauma and troubled family dynamics.

Sharp Objects is an impeccably designed slow-burn mini-series that is truly atmospheric. The empty streets, the young women on rollerskates, the bars, the drinking — it’s all there. You can feel the sweat on the characters’ brows, you are frozen still by the cold of the series’ most bone-chilling moments, and you can smell the odorous booze on the story’s main character.

The characters of the story come to life as described and, I gather, as was intended by Flynn with the novel. Though I must say, there are some interesting changes and additions. I will let others decide whether or not the book is always better, but I will say that some of the book’s most haunting descriptions were not as scary or haunting as expected. With that having been said, on the other hand, I thought the mini-series did a better job with fleshing out certain characters.

There is a line in Flynn’s book that describes Camille Preaker’s internal monologue in a moment of drama, anxiety, and great pressure. It is noted that “sometimes [her] scars have a mind of their own.” This is a line that works well when paired with the adaptation, which shows the burning of the scars, as described in the book, by making marks on the real world. This is a show with flashing images, moving pictures, non-linear editing, and the self-harm words appearing on cars or license plates, or the like. In Sharp Objects, past and present become one as Vallée experiments with the medium to produce and describe memories and trauma in a way that only this audiovisual medium can.

Jean-Marc Vallée’s last big hit — Big Little Lies — had a female-led cast, who, rightly, were all praised. This story created by Gillian Flynn is not dissimilar. It, too, is built around women. Like the novel, the show is filled with many complicated women and the female performances are all great. Elizabeth Perkins, unfortunately, likely won’t get the praise she deserves for playing Wind Gap’s gossipy woman, but she really is great.

Patricia Clarkson, who plays Camille’s mother, plays the ice-cold queen of Camille’s hometown so perfectly. She is an imposing but enchanting woman who has an uncanny ability to freeze all movement when she enters a room. She is the show’s White Witch-like character, and Clarkson does a brilliant job of capturing that side of the character. Her dialogue is delivered with an unknowing bite and is unforgettable.

Then we have Amma, the much younger half-sister to Camille, who is played by an Aussie newcomer — Eliza Scanlen — who hides her accent, and puts on another, impressively well. Scanlen is mesmerizing and hypnotic in this star-making performance.

Most notably, of course, Amy Adams is the leading lady in Sharp Objects. Honestly, at this point, what more can be said about Amy Adams? She is, to me, one of the greatest actresses out there, and she does not get the support some of her male co-stars often get. Amy Adams is extraordinary, which is why it did not shock me whatsoever that she mastered the most anxiety-filled scenes.

She taps into that raw vulnerability of her alarmingly wounded character with this performance that is overflowing with repressed emotions. It might be her best performance yet, and if she does not get an Emmy statuette for this performance when it is eligible for one, then the Television Academy is out of its mind.

Novel creator and episode writer Gillian Flynn, series creator Marti Noxon, director Jean-Marc Vallée, and star Amy Adams have given us arguably the strongest show on television thus far in 2018. This adaptation fully lived up to the promise and potential of the book, and Vallée’s auteur touch has made this story of crime and trauma into a Southern Gothic mini-series masterpiece.

A+

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen

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