tv review

The Seductive Horror of Sharp Objects

Photo: Anne Marie Fox/HBO

Sharp Objects finishes on a dissonant, horror-movie note: one last scare that slithers into the frame when you thought it was over. The trial of pork mogul Adora Crellin (Patricia Clarkson) has concluded, and she’s been sent to prison for committing a string of murders in Wind Gap, Missouri. Teenage Amma (Eliza Scanlen), now ensconced in St. Louis with her recovering alcoholic half-sister Camille (Amy Adams) and making new friends, appears in a doorway right after Camille learns the truth: In the scale model dollhouse of their childhood home, Adora’s ivory bedroom floor has been recreated with teeth from murder victims’ gums. So Amma is the real killer — the “Woman in White” glimpsed at the edge of dark woods where teenage Camille once let boys have sex with her, or was gang-raped, according to visiting detective Richard Willis (Chris Messina).

Is this a plausible instance of childhood trauma paying itself forward in the form of multiple killings? Is it a cheap scare that doesn’t really jibe with what we know about Amma, or about the psychology of young girls generally? Is it a thought experiment designed to trap sexist viewers who, to paraphrase a casual remark Amma made to Chief Vickery (Matt Craven), believe that women aren’t capable of such savagery? All of those things, probably. Perhaps more importantly, it’s an intense yet dreamy look at a woman with a tragic past who’s introduced circling the bottom of the drain and nearly gets pulled through the grate.

It’s that last aspect that most fascinates. I’ve had many discussions with friends about the terrible journalism practiced by Camille (who drinks to excess, sleeps with two sources, and is rarely shown taking anything but the paltriest notes), as well as her editor and surrogate dad, Frank Curry (Miguel Sandoval), who dispatches a mediocre writer and established screw-up to report a potentially explosive out-of-town crime story, knowing full well that letting her stay with her mother, the town’s most powerful citizen, would expose the paper to conflict-of-interest charges. This is all easy to make fun of, and I’ve kidded it myself. (Camille is marginally less incompetent in the book, where at least we get a continuous stream of her thoughts and theories about the assignment.)

But Sharp Objects is so uninterested in being a primer on good journalism that fixating on that aspect seems as pointless as blasting Vertigo for its portrayal of surveillance work, or the Dirty Harry series for its representation of urban policing. What’s happening onscreen in this HBO miniseries is emotionally logical and psychologically astute, if deeply masochistic, to the point where watching the show amounts to marinating for one hour a week in a bathtub filled with tears. It’s the story of a woman who seems to have reached the end of a very bad, short road, and returns to her origins for a reckoning that could either save or destroy her. It wraps an intuitive and inner-directed story inside such a meticulous, at times tactile-seeming depiction of life as it’s actually lived. The tension between those two impulses is what makes it pop.

Sharp Objects — based on Gillian Flynn’s novel, and overseen by Flynn, writer-producer Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and director Jean-Marc Vallée (Big Little Lies) — occupies a fascinating and precarious place in popular culture. It is outwardly realistic in every aspect, from its lived-in performances and atmospheric location shooting to its prismatic sound design and its nonlinear editing, which strives to replicate how the brain remembers and suppresses trauma. But in its heart, it’s a tragedy, a doom spiral about a damaged person slowly coming to terms with her damage, immersing herself in hell one last time and emerging, if not stronger, then alive, at least.

It’s telling and understandable that some would criticize the series for building its story around a woman who is more acted-upon than acted. Camille seems — between the booze, the cutting, and the impulsive sex — to have spent most of her life engaged in a systematic act of self-negation. She doesn’t return home triumphantly and start kicking over rocks; she slips in, and seems hesitant and wounded even when she’s being bold. The character has been hurt, and hurt herself, in more ways than can be counted, and there’s a hint of the flinch to how she interacts with people. When she finally comes face to face with The Truth about her mother and father, it’s as if she’s been pulled there by forces not entirely within her control. Is it good for women, indeed for the culture, for an Oscar-nominated star like Amy Adams to take a role like this, and for HBO to bankroll it so handsomely and package it with such flair? No one ever asks such questions of stories about men flirting with oblivion, and there have been many excellent ones, including Under the Volcano, All That Jazz, Bad Lieutenant, and seven seasons of Mad Men. We’re not yet at the point where a woman’s story can be one woman’s story and secondarily (and only optionally) Woman’s Story. But we’re getting there, and Sharp Objects is part of that shift.

What a strange, alternately infuriating and intoxicating ride this miniseries was. I started reading Flynn’s book before I began watching the HBO adaptation. Then I set the book aside, because I was so mesmerized by what Flynn, Noxon, and Vallée were doing — and by how tonally different it was from its source — that I realized I’d rather reach the end of the story on the screen. Flynn’s book is told in first person, in a voice that seems equally influenced by hardboiled crime potboilers and the literary fiction subgenre about troubled writers returning to the miserable small town that spawned them and confronting the place in all its complexity and hypocrisy. The story ends more or less the same way in both versions, and hopefully it won’t sound like a knock against either to say that (1) I didn’t really believe Amma was capable of that kind of violence, and (2) this reaction didn’t affect my respect for either version at all.

I can’t remember the last time I watched a series where every episode left me feeling anxious and depressed to the point of emotional paralysis, yet also eager to immediately revisit the fictional space that the actors and filmmakers had so obsessively brought to life. Strange as it might sound, by the end of its run, the current TV production that Sharp Objects most reminded me of was Donald Glover’s FX series Atlanta, which also fuses a borderline documentary-like sensibility with surreal situations and nightmare logic. Glover’s Atlanta is the sort of place where people can have accurate discussions of restaurants, geography, dating rituals, and the current political climate’s effect on class and race, while at the same time encountering invisible cars, giant alligators being kept as household pets, and feuding showbiz brothers, one of whom serves soft-boiled ostrich eggs to guests as snacks. Sharp Objects recreates the stifling atmosphere, desolate streets, and reactionary social mores of a small town so vividly that it makes you want to pack your bags in preparation to leave a place you never actually lived in. But it’s also a story where the past and the present blur together, and we see words that the heroine carved into her flesh appearing on billboards and signage, and the main plot is woven around a series of murders that are nearly Hannibal-esque in their grotesque flamboyance. The image of a girl’s decaying corpse propped up like a rag doll will never leave my mind; it’s so searing that the show never feels the need to revisit it in flashback, because every time you pass that alley, you can’t help but remember it.

This is ultimately a horror-movie space, as driven by fear, desire, and unconscious forces as Castle Rock, Twin Peaks, and Haddonfield. Wind Gap’s mythology is built around a Civil War gang rape and a women’s rebellion that never happened. The biggest local employer is a hog butchering factory that the citizens can hear and smell from miles away. The murder-mutilations are ultimately laid at the feet of the factory’s owner, a Munchausen-by-proxy sufferer and amateur apothecary, and her stepdaughter, a junior serial killer who lures children into the woods and tears the teeth from their corpses. The unreality is so real, the reality so unreal, that trying to fix what you’re seeing with a single label seems a bad faith exercise, or at the very least, insufficient to the task of coming to grips with what we’ve seen. The characters wander through a landscape of metaphors, both incidental and created. Camille’s cutting is as fantastically overwrought as the tattoos on ex-felon Max Cady’s body in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear, a very different story about a disgraced prodigal child who returns home to force former neighbors to face their hypocrisy. Camille even has completely legible words on her back. How did they get there? It doesn’t matter. As realistic as the sounds and textures may be, this story unfolds in a dreamscape.

Horror is what binds it together. Not just the frisson of revulsion that we experience in life whenever we come face-to-face with violence or decay, but the idea of horror, the genre of horror, the theory and practice of horror. A friend once summarized the premise of every great horror story as, “The thing you fear most is what happens.” Wind Gap is itself a vortex of decay, inhabited by characters who seem as lost as Camille, even if they don’t score their bodies with words. The entire story seems to be at risk of collapsing on itself. And the first two-thirds of the final episode — titled “Milk,” as in mother’s, perhaps — have the twilight credulity of a bedtime story, the old-fashioned kind that made kids stay up at night wondering if the floorboards creaked because a monster was hiding under the bed.

Adora grinds chemicals with a mortar and pestle and poisons her two living daughters. “More, mama,” pleads the bedridden, regressed Camille, taking a spoonful, the red liquid spotting her white nightgown. Amma holds forth at the family dinner table on the myth of Persephone, queen of the underworld, while wearing a flower crown. “I’m just helping nature along,” Adora tells her husband. “It’s better if you don’t try to stand,” Amma tells Camille. “Crawling’s okay. “This family is as dysfunctional as anything in a Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill play, and they act out as dimly aware that we’re watching them, a theater audience leaning forward in its seats hoping to see each glimmer of pain more clearly. “It’s kinda funny, huh, how many stories there are where princesses need to get rescued from witches,” Amma says at their last family supper, foretelling the arrival of Frank and Richard (their entrance announced by red and blue police lights flickering on the ceiling), and inadvertently predicting how we’ll feel about her post-Adora relationship with Camille, who assumes a maternal role and becomes princess to the younger woman’s witch.

I want to go back again, now. More, mama.

The Seductive Horror of Sharp Objects