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Jean-Marc Vallée’s Evolution to Sharp Objects From Big Little Lies

Photo: HBO

Big Little Lies was an HBO drama, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, with a murder mystery embedded in its intoxicating center. The same can be said about Sharp Objects, the HBO limited series based on Gillian Flynn’s novel that’s directed and edited by Vallée.

The two overlap in a number of ways, actually. Both traffic in buried secrets, the degree to which a town defines its populace, and women who feel obligated to keep up appearances. Both star Academy Award–nominated actresses — in Sharp Objects, that would be Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson, who plays a woman that could be described as an older, more somber version of Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline Martha MacKenzie, if Madeline were also a character in an exceptionally twisted Tennessee Williams play. Both highlight music’s ability to transport human beings to other places and times. Even my response to Sharp Objects reminded me of my response to Big Little Lies in that I instantly became addicted to and obsessed with the second Vallée series just like I did with the first. Every time I recently tried to watch an episode of literally any other show, I thought: “Why am I watching this when I could be watching Sharp Objects right now?” I said the same thing during the all-too-brief Big Little Lies binge of 2017.

But, of course, Sharp Objects departs significantly from its Monterey-based predecessor. For starters, it is consistently darker in tone. Its mix of southern gothic and small-town grit is not as blatantly alluring as the sunny, oceanfront luxuries on display in Big Little Lies. I wanted to live inside that show; I definitely do not want to live inside Sharp Objects. I am, however, more than happy to remain in the thrall of its stream-of-conscious, fever-dream aesthetic, a nonlinear storytelling style that was used occasionally in Big Little Lies and serves as the foundation on which Sharp Objects is built. I wouldn’t say Sharp Objects is better than Big Little Lies — both are great for different reasons — but its visual language makes it a more consistently daring work of television. Sharp Objects doesn’t feel like a scripted series so much as an intoxicant. I don’t just watch it, I get drunk on it.

That’s appropriate since Camille Preaker (Adams), the reporter who travels to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to cover the murders of two local girls, is drunk for practically every second of Sharp Objects. As Camille cruises through the streets of her hometown, listening to Led Zeppelin or M. Ward, she sips the vodka she’s poured into an Evian water bottle and remembers details and moments sparked by the familiar surroundings. The camera doesn’t simply reveal what is in front of or around her, it shows what Camille sees in her mind’s eye. Flashes of memory — Camille’s fingers grazing the fingers of her younger sister decades earlier, a cart filled with cleaning products, the peculiar crack in a ceiling — whiz by like images in an online slideshow. Sometimes there is context for them, and sometimes the context comes later, but collectively they convey what needs to be conveyed: Significant moments are buried in Camille’s subconscious that, for some reason, she can’t look at for too long.

Big Little Lies used a similar technique to convey lack of clarity around certain incidents, most notably what occurred on the night of the Audrey and Elvis fundraiser. In the scene that opens the first episode, we see blurred red-and-blue lights of a police car and snatches of imagery, including tiara-clad women with distressed looks on their faces, that tell us something serious has occurred. We learn pretty quickly that someone died, but we don’t know who and we don’t know why. As Vallée later does more extensively in Sharp Objects, his direction conveys some concrete information, but shrouds a great deal more in mystery, to the point that it’s unclear what is real and what is surreal.

The climactic closing moments of the Big Little Lies finale reveal (obligatory spoiler alert!) that Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) is the one who dies, after Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) pushes him down the stairs following an altercation with all the principal female characters. Once again, flashes of imagery — snapshots of the women restraining Perry from hitting his wife Celeste (Nicole Kidman), mixed with the sight of Pacific Ocean waves crashing against the shore — capture the madness of what’s happening and the sense that it will be hard to pin down the specifics later. But there’s also an important moment early in the sequence — when Jane (Shailene Woodley), after realizing Perry is the man who raped her years earlier, seems to point a gun at him — that dances between fantasy and truth. Jane doesn’t actually try to shoot Perry or flash a weapon, but Vallée depicts the thought in her head before clicking back into what, as far as we know, actually happened.

Sharp Objects doesn’t just do that fantasy/reality dance once or twice. It does it constantly, either through memory flashes or scenes that move fluidly from past to present, like the one in the first episode where a young Camille (the perfectly cast Sophia Lillis) goes to find her mother after her sister starts having a seizure and an older Camille follows her out the bedroom door into the hallway, which becomes suddenly empty once Camille snaps back to the now. The boundary between memory, imagination, and reality remains porous at all times in Sharp Objects, not just sometimes like in BLL. For a more Easter egg–ish example of that porousness, rewatch the scene where Camille drives out of St. Louis and heads to Wind Gap. There’s a sign on the highway that reads: “Exit 40: Last Exit to Change Your Mind” that raises questions about whether any of what happens after can be taken at face value.

The personal relationships people develop with music was a major part of Big Little Lies. Chloe (Darby Camp), the younger daughter of Madeline MacKenzie (Reese Witherspoon) had a sophisticated relationship with it; Jane was often seen jogging with earbuds in, a suggestion that music helped her to run as much as her legs did. That idea is front and center in Sharp Objects too. In one episode, Camille shares a pair of earbuds with a friend so they can listen to music on an iPhone together. “Let’s get out of here,” she says, as if the mere act of inserting those white plastic nodules in their ear holes is the equivalent of a road trip.

But it’s the way that Vallée pairs music with imagery that really pushes the craft of Sharp Objects a step beyond Big Little Lies. Sharp Objects has a hazy quality about it. It makes you feel loopy like you do at the end of a humid summer afternoon, or buzzed and heavy-lidded after several hours of day drinking. Essentially, it makes the viewer feel the way Camille does 99 percent of the time, which is loopy from the heat and day drunk. That vibe is captured best in the sequences that put Camille behind the wheel, where her mind runs from thought to thought while she shuffles through her playlists and visits old haunts. There’s a scene in an upcoming episode that I still can’t shake, in which Camille drives by some quaint Wind Gap houses while the eerie intro to Zeppelin’s “In the Evening” pours out of her speakers. She notices there are no children playing outside — in the front window of one of the homes, we briefly catch a glimpse of a girl’s silhouette — in a way that is packed with foreboding and the palpable sense that something is really, inescapably off around here. There’s something about the emptiness and the underwater quality of that Led Zeppelin track, including the first garbled Robert Plant utterance of the words “in the evening,” the only lyric the show lets us hear, that’s odd, nostalgic, and upsetting all at once. The scene isn’t just memorable, it burrows into the subconscious and puts down roots there.

It’s interesting that many of the signature moments in Sharp Objects involve Amy Adams driving, since the opening titles of Big Little Lies feature the sight of Witherspoon & Co. cruising along the California coast. That’s something else both series share in common: a strong sense of place. But where Big Little Lies toggled between different emotional beats — sometimes it was funny, other times it was deadly serious and disturbing — Sharp Objects has a mood, which I’ll describe, with apologies to the Smashing Pumpkins, as southern melancholy and the infinite sadness. That mood is thick and so intertwined with the setting that the two become synonymous.

Instead of seeing a vast ocean in the distance, a glimmer of the possibility for freedom, Sharp Objects depicts the same streets and locations — the local Dairy Queen, the police station, the Confederate statue — over and over again. This is a landlocked little town where it takes only five minutes to memorize the grid because there isn’t that much to it. Camille and everybody else residing in Wind Gap is trapped and the landscape never lets us forget it.

Vallée returns again and again to images suggestive of restricted movement. As often as we see Camille driving, we see her getting out of the car from the perspective of the passenger seat, and then slamming the door shut in our metaphorical faces. Camille’s half-sister Amma (Eliza Scanlen) and her friends are constantly shown rolling down the street on Xanadu-era skates. Sure, they’ve got sets of wheels, but the kind that will only get them so far. Later this season, Amma skates by herself, up and down the wraparound front porch on her parents’ Victorian home, as though she’s a roller girl stuck in a prison of time and space.

In case there’s any doubt that the household presided over by the controlling Adora Crellin (Clarkson, wonderful as always) is claustrophobic, look no further than the dollhouse replica of the home that sits inside of it, as if the residence is one big Russian nesting doll. In one episode, there’s a shot of Gayla the housekeeper (Emily Yancy) scrubbing the floor of Adora’s bathroom that glides right into the sight of Amma wiping dust away from the identically designed floor in the dollhouse. It’s one of the many gorgeous, purposefully edited moments that signal how claustrophobic and closed-off it feels to live there.

Led Zeppelin may be Camille’s retro-rock fave, but the 1970s-era lyric that comes to mind when I think of the overall effect of Sharp Objects comes from the Eagles: “You can check out anytime you like / But you can never leave.” That may describe an alleged hotel in California, the land of Big Little Lies, but it summarizes both Camille’s relationship with her town and family as well as the way Vallée’s exacting choices create such a hypnotic atmosphere. What this series tells us with its visuals, its music, and its storytelling is that leaving Wind Gap is impossible. Once that place gets in your head, it stays there for good.

Jean-Marc Vallée’s Evolution to Sharp Objects From BLL