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'Sharp Objects' Delivers a Stunning Southern Gothic

4.5/5 Stars

Amy Adams as Camille Preaker in HBO's "Sharp Objects."

Mama. The nearly universal word for mother. A sweet collection of syllables thought to form many babies’ first word. It is also the core subject of HBO’s latest limited series “Sharp Objects,” brilliantly directed by Jean-Marc Vallée—of “Big Little Lies” fame—and adapted from Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name. With its luscious cinematography, haunting story, and painful soundtrack, “Sharp Objects” delivers a stunning Southern Gothic that gives this loving word a much darker connotation.

The series opens with the return of Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), a St. Louis reporter, to her small hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri. She has come back after many years to write about the disappearance and the subsequent murder of two young girls, Anne Nash and Natalie Keene. Camille’s boss Frank Curry (Miguel Sandoval) hopes that this piece will be a breakthrough for Camille in terms of cultivating her writing and battling her inner demons.

Camille is a high-functioning alcoholic who has spent years receiving psychiatric help for self-harm. She bears scars all over her body, elaborately carved words embossed over her skin like ridges on paper. Coming back home means dealing with her narrow-minded neighbors and her dangerously uptight mother Adora Crellin (Patricia Clarkson) with whom she has a deeply fraught relationship. The murders of the little girls brings on an onslaught of distressing memories, none more painful than the death of Marian, her younger sister who died when they were both very young.

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Camille launches herself into the work fully, interviewing suspicious parents, siblings, and witnesses relentlessly. Though she is refused any information by the town’s police chief Bill Vickery (Matt Craven), who is deep in her mother’s pockets, she befriends and begins a relationship with the sharp Kansas City detective Richard Willis (Chris Messina). Their leads, while strong, are intermingled with the macabre town folklore and Adora’s meddling.

“Sharp Objects” successfully exists in a world of its own because of its strange blend of horror, legend, and mystery. Surreal elements are easily mixed into reality, such as the show’s many hidden messages: on the dashboard of radio in the background, on the street signs, glinting against Camille’s skin—these serve as warnings and red flags, appearing for mere seconds before vanishing. These etchings are also the source from which each episode derives its title. These hidden messages are one of the many intricate details that demonstrate how well constructed the series is.

While the plot is quite riveting, for the most part it is characters and the actors who play them who anchor the storyline. Clarkson plays Adora, the town’s wealthy queen bee, deftly and carefully. It is hard not to feel the Flannery O’Connor’s aesthetic influence as we watch Adora float through her impeccable, gargantuan Victorian in her billowing muslin robe. She radiates a power and evil that are inherently tied to the ancestral home Camille has learned to hate while growing up.

Camille’s teenage half-sister Amma (Eliza Scanlen) is an anachronism flitting between different eras and personalities. At night Amma traipses around town on “Boogie Nights” rollerblades with her clique of mean, delinquent girls. They go smoking, drinking, and have illicit meetings with boys. Back at home, she’s a polished Tabitha Stevens equipped with hair ribbons and false innocence. She spends her time playing with her special dollhouse, a model of her own home. Adora watches her carefully with delight, her own personal little doll. Over the course of the series, we realize that Amma is much more complicated this. Her own long suffered abuse has not only split her into two people, it has shattered her entirely into an unstable mess of identities. Scanlen plays these shifts exquisitely, and as the series continues, it is alarming to see how imperceptible the changes become.

The episodes on the whole build up towards a larger storyline quite slowly, especially because the story is told through a combination of rapid flashbacks and stylistic shots of the show’s major motifs. One moment we are in the present day with Camille attending Natalie Keene’s funeral. In the next we are jolted to Marian’s funeral in the past, where we watch a young Camille rage over the lifeless, painted face of her beloved sister. We discover early on that time in the show is never quite linear, such as when we hear Marian speaking to an older Camille in the present. The blend and warp emphasizes the importance of the past not only for the sake of solving the mystery, but also for Camille’s ability to attain closure.

Adams is incredibly moving as Camille, capturing both the hard, guarded shell of her journalist side but also her pained and horrified frozen child within. With an unloving mother, a dead sister, a history of brutal sexual assault, and a ghost of a father, Camille has enough agony and loneliness to fill a lifetime. Adams treats this character with sensitivity, conveying Camille’s different sides through a real depth of tear-jerking emotion. Her performance is truly remarkable, encapsulating both the chaos and iron that make up this wounded woman.

Another triumph of this series is its portrayal of Wind Gap: a true tapestry of middle America. Wind Gap is not a quaint Southern town. It’s the kind of place where the phrase “bless your heart” really means “fuck you.” Episode Five of the series is particularly noteworthy because it gives the first suggestion that the sickness and evil so entrenched in the antagonists is passed down through the town’s polluted foundations and lineage: a modern day Thebes. “Closer” details the Crellin festivities on Calhoun day, a celebration of the town’s Confederate soldier founder, Zeke Calhoun. The main event of the party is a play acted by the local children centering on Calhoun’s teenage wife Millie who is raped and tortured by Yankee soldiers when she refuses to give up her husband. This is the show that the town’s members applaud with eagerness—little Amma as Millie being violated on stage as people cheer on her bravery and commitment to family. When presented with a scene like this, it becomes easy to see the show’s fascination with mothers and heritage.

Though “Closer” is generally more sickening than even the most graphic of the other episodes, Camille’s ironic explanations of the town history to an amused Richard makes it slightly more palatable. This episode in particular unveils a duplicity that will later prove crucial to the show’s ultimate reveal. As Camille explains, nobody would ever use the “C” word (Confederate) outright but its residents would nonetheless bear the flags silently. This is because they operate under a tacit, deeply ingrained set of rules which help to capture the general feeling of complacency and collusion that hovers over the shoulders of many of the characters. Everyone is a liar in Wind Gap.

Along with its incredible shots, the show’s soundtrack deserves quite a bit of praise. It includes an esoteric mix of jazz, Led Zeppelin, country, and mangled synths. The songs are not only the keys to uncovering Camille’s frame of mind, but also essential for creating the haunting atmosphere so characteristic of the show. In the penultimate episode, “Down in the Willow Garden,” a song about poisoning and murdering little girls, plays at the end while Amma and her father Alan gleefully dance and sing along to the gruesome lyrics. This is an eeriness you can’t get anywhere else.

With its incredible cast and storytelling, “Sharp Objects” is sure to be an awards darling. Of course, this is not the only reason why it should be watched. More than anything, “Sharp Objects” is a masterfully told story about trauma, recovery, and inheritable sickness. At times it can be difficult to follow Camille’s struggles: What other possible horrors could the show have in store for this woman? While it may be a far cry from uplifting and still leave its viewers with many questions at its very end, it is a necessary portrait of a broken family and viewers may applaud the show for finding it somewhere in its twisted heart to give Camille just a bit of much deserved and needed closure in the end.

—Staff writer Aline G. Damas can be reached at aline.damas@thecrimson.com.

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