Sharp Objects, after weeks of examining the effects of long-term trauma and the perniciousness of memory, ended with the “shocking” reveal of the killer of the girls of Wind Gap, leaving the viewer with an almost unbearable number of questions. Regardless of whatever other qualities the rest of the series may have, you simply can’t talk about Sharp Objects without talking about the ending of the series and whether it worked for you. Director Jean-Marc Vallée made sure of that by holding off on the reveal until the literal last seconds of screen time and giving the viewer not one shred of information as to what may happen next. It was a stunning directorial choice, made partly necessary by the book upon which the series is based. Having watched the screener for this episode a while back and rewatched it a half-dozen times since then, we reluctantly came to the conclusion that it did not work as well as we’d have liked and we spent most of Sunday brunch hashing out the reasons why to each other.
But it feels wrong to start off a review of the series with a critique, since we’ve spent the past few months doing nothing but singing its praises. Sharp Objects was an emotionally rewarding viewing experience anchored by uniformly excellent – and in one or two cases career-best – performances by the entire cast, stunningly directed by a visionary with a knack for handling psychologically rich material (as evidenced by this and his masterful turn helming Big Little Lies) and a magician’s deftness with the tools of filmmaking, from editing to sound design to cinematography. The result was a haunting and truthful examination of trauma and memory. How the past flows and erupts unexpectedly through the present, constantly. How trauma is a slow-motion explosion that never truly ends in a person’s life. How small town communities can grow stagnant and thick with secrets, addictions and lies. How families are breeding grounds for mental health issues that get passed down in one form or another; cruelness begetting ever greater cruelnesses. And underneath it all, made crystal clear by the ending, was a fairly disturbing undertone examining the ways in which women hurt themselves and hurt other women while stuck inside a smothering system of patriarchy and toxic masculinity that boxes them in and walls them off from forming alliances. It was never, to us, a murder mystery. We never had the idea that the series needed to end with every i dotted and every t crossed. Considering the dreamlike quality of it all, we can’t fault director Vallée for his creative choice. He took a revelation that shouldn’t have been too shocking to any audience member engaging in theorizing (Amma was always a suspect, always presented as dangerous, dark, manipulative and potentially violent) and spun it out in such a way as to provide the maximum emotional shock to the audience. It took us a while to come around to admitting this to each other, but we both felt the shock value didn’t make up for what was left on the table, emotionally speaking.
Don’t get us wrong, we’d have likely had a fit if the series ended without a definite answer as to the identity of the killer, but the series and the story was always about trauma and self-harm, families and communities, gossip and memories. It was always about what was going on in the heads of the characters; what was driving their actions or causing them to hurt themselves. It was always about Camille and whether she could find a way out of her pain or simply find a way to keep surviving. And while the importance and value of her journey throughout the story can’t be denied, it felt too upended by a last-second revelation that pretty much throws Camille’s continued existence into question. It’s hard not to wonder why we spent so much time on Camille’s pain and journey if we’re left wondering if she managed to keep it together after the most horrifying revelation of her life became clear to her. There’s value in a story that ends with you wondering and seeking answers, but there’s a sense here that the equilibrium of expectations has been thrown completely off. There are simply too many questions, too many repercussions of that reveal for it to be simply a tantalizingly open ending.
Still, we also have to reiterate just how amazing the performances have been since the beginning; just how rich and nuanced the direction was and how well things like sound design, cinematography, music and costume design (which we’ll be examining in a series of posts this week) combined to make this series a viewing experience that sticks with us, long after we reached its end. Everything about Sharp Objects has been of the highest artistic quality, even the way it was ended; a creative gamble that didn’t quite pay off as well as we’d have liked but that we find it impossible not to respect. Still, it’s hard not to look back on the series and see that there was something of a serious pacing problem happening. While we were enraptured all along by the performances of Amy Adams, Patricia Clarkson, Elizabeth Perkins and Eliza Scanlen (and pretty much everyone else in the cast), there was a sense of repetition by the time the series reached its 5th or 6th hour. At the beginning of the series, we thought we could spend all night just watching Amy Adams drive around drunkenly listening to Led Zeppelin and letting her past slowly reveal itself, but it turns out there’s something of a limit to an audience’s willingness to watch depressed people simply go through the bare-bones motions of being depressed. While Vallée and Adams combined their talents to produce a truly rich and emotionally draining portrayal of someone deep in the throes of depression, addiction and self-harm, there was perhaps a bit too much of a reliance on that combination of talents in the end. As much as we wouldn’t want to argue for less of Adams’ and Clarkson’s amazing (and hopefully award-winning) performances, it’s hard for us not to think that some of that time could have been put aside to give the series the kind of ending the audience deserved. We stuck it out with Camille until the end. As much as we see the value of ambiguity in some endings, this was one time when the audience deserved just a little more time with it.