Before we even saw one frame of Sharp Objects, the new limited series on HBO adapted from Gillian Flynn’s best-seller, we could tell that Amy Adams, one of the most deserving but least-rewarded actresses in Hollywood was gunning for serious recognition. Much in the same way Nicole Kidman took on Big Little Lies with such vehemence that the string of awards she finally won seemed inevitable from the start, Adams completely submerges herself into the character of Camille Preaker. Perhaps speaking of acting awards and career management techniques of the stars isn’t the most sensitive way to open up a discussion of this first episode, but the power of Adams’ performance and the way the series practically drips with quality and artistry in the same manner as Big Little Lies made it impossible for us to think of anything else. You can’t watch this without thinking “Everybody here is on their A game.” The entire serieswas directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, who also directed Big Little Lies and who clearly has a knack for plumbing the psyches of complex women on film.
Adams’ Preaker is of a piece with the latest popular trope in prestige television, the Damaged, Angry Woman. As much as it’s been a welcome turn after decades of watching male actors scoop up acclaim for playing asshole anti-heroes, the Damaged, Angry Woman trope is pretty close to being played out as it currently exists. Or at least, we thought it was until we got a load of Amy Adams playing around with it.
Like all good film actors, Adams is acutely aware of her own looks and how they can serve her performance. With a face that looks like a Disney princess’s and her own softly tentative speaking style, Adams is aware that Camille’s darkness and anger is a stark contrast to her approachably pretty demeanor and plays that contradiction to the hilt. Camille’s rage is never expressed overtly, but comes out in the margins of Adams’ performance, much in the way Vallee places visual incongruities (dead girl in the hallway, Adora drunkenly dancing) at the corner of the eye in several frames. While Camille rarely expresses her true feelings verbally, she spends her life scratching them into every surface available to her; “DIRTY” traced on the dust of her car, “BAD” scratched into her desk, and “VANISH” scarred into the flesh of her arm. Her self-harm comes off like an inadvertent autobiography; a window into her soul written in dust and flesh.
Every good Southern Gothic, small-town-with-secrets drama needs a slightly crazed matriarch and Patricia Clarkson ably fills the role by imbuing Adora with a deceptive fragility that masks a frightening darkness, similar to Adams’ performance. You can see the psychic through-line of this family whenever mother and daughter face off in a scene, even though there are clear differences in the women and the actresses portraying them. Swanning around a mansion bursting with floral motifs and candle-light in a dressing gown and heels, constantly nursing a cocktail (and probably a hangover), Clarkson fills the screen by keeping her performance small and intimate. This is no Blanche DuBois turn on her part. Adora is complicated, frightening, sad, and high-strung, but oh so weary of it all. She and Adams are spectacular together in every scene. You can see the familial ties while also understanding how much of a stranger each woman is to the other.
Aiding both actresses tremendously is the sharp, confident, nuanced direction of Jean-Marc Vallee. His mastery of every filmmaking technique is on full display here, from sound design to shot composition to editing, all of which combine to subtly underline every scene with an almost unbearable tension and bleakness. Virtually every shot is slightly off in its composition, giving each scene a sort of inscrutability as you try to understand what you’re looking at or what you’re supposed to be looking at. Every scene literally vibrates as the camera never stops moving in ways big and small, throwing the viewer off and keeping them just a little irritated so they can see the world through Camille’s eyes and filter their reactions through her emotions. Wind Gap, Missouri is a town littered with memories, ghosts, and the bodies of dead girls. Flashes of memories will erupt unexpectedly in the manner of things one would rather forget, melding into the present day to remind you (and Camille) that the past isn’t the past, but merely a relentless component of the present. Sound bleeds from one scene into the next or sometimes muffled and sometimes dropping out completely as Vallee lets the images and performances command all your attention. It’s the work of a director at the top of his game who knows exactly what he’s doing. Next to the performances of Adams and Clarkson, it’s the main reason why this series crackles with such high quality as to make you feel like you’re lucky to be watching something so good, so nuanced, and so haunting from the safety of your couch. Not only will we be back for more, but we can already tell we’re going to be sad to see it eventually come to an end. In a time when there are more high-quality options for the television viewing audience than ever before, Sharp Objects still manages to stand well above much of what’s currently airing.
[Photo Credit: Anne Marie Fox/HBO]