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‘Sharp Objects’ Review: A Spellbinding Premiere Teases a Town Filled with Secrets — 5 Questions After Episode 1

The first episode of HBO's moody limited series is an addictive immersion into a dark, small-town mystery.

Sharp Objects HBO Amy Adams

Amy Adams in “Sharp Objects”

Anne Marie Fox/HBO

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Sharp Objects” Episode 1, “Vanish.”]

One of the first signs you see when driving through Wind Gap, Mo., is a faded green mural showing a woman waving from her ’50s era convertible. It’s a fitting welcome for newcomers, including visitors and viewers alike, but not because of the kind gesture or visibly outdated iconography. It’s the spray-painted scrawl just to the left of it, where an oh-so-clever vandal has tagged one of George H.W. Bush’s 1992 campaign signs so next to the wholesome, white-teeth flashing beauty queen it reads, “Lick my fucking Bush.”

In Sunday night’s premiere, “Sharp Objects” viewers were taken for a ride into town and greeted in a similar fashion: false-fronting kindness with a nastiness lurking just out of sight. Be it a cold family or cold bodies, Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) serves as our proxy to a small southern staple of broken Americana, and she sees all of its bones whether she wants to or not.

“Vanish” is about confronting reality, be it through immediate action or the recollection of memories. Showrunner Marti Noxon’s script, paired with Jean-Marc Vallée’s direction and editing, blend Camille’s resistance to accept her past and present in beautiful, haunting, and precise fashion. The pressing current issue is the murder of one girl and the disappearance of another; Camille is there to get the story, but she’s also there to cope with a history she’s ignored until now. For as much as the premiere episode tells us, what it holds back is just as compelling.

Below, IndieWire asks the pressing questions about what might happen next and what long-lurking secret could affect the case at hand. As has been mentioned already, “Sharp Objects” is a slow-burn, so admiring each spark, sizzle, and flame is the best way to watch.

Sharp Objects Amy Adams Patricia Clarkson

Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson in “Sharp Objects”

Anne Marie Fox / HBO

What happened to Marian?

At the root of Camille’s dysfunction seems to be her younger sister, Marian (played by Lulu Wilson). She keeps flashing back to their adolescent adventures or private conversations, which build to the fact her sister died very young — when Camille was still young herself.

But what happened to Marian? Despite the homicidal theme running through Wind Gap, Marian’s death appears to be from illness. One flashback shows a sweaty Marian staring at the ceiling with her sister, when she suddenly seizes up and sends Camille running for their mother. When an adult Camille returns home, she remembers a conversation she had with Marian on the porch, when she got mad at her sister for talking about what happens when you die. “You’re not a quitter, are you?” Camille snaps at Marian, implying she’s not allowed to give up hope.

The rest is locked away in Camille’s mind, sure to emerge in coming episodes as her memories prove unavoidable — more on that in a moment.

Who’s the other girl Camille keeps seeing?

There are a lot of young girls populating the first hour of “Sharp Objects,” from Amma (Eliza Scanlen), Camille’s half-sister, to Camille’s flashbacks to her younger self (when she’s played by Sophia Lillis). But one girl doesn’t have a clear explanation: the girl in the mirror.

She’s seen clearly in just one quick cut, but there are other shots of an unidentifiable girl (or girls) that could be her, too. (One of which is early on in the episode, when Camille reaches out to touch a young woman who’s laying down, face to the wall, in her bed.) But the girl-in-question’s face is shown when Camille checks into the motel at the edge of Wind Gap. As she’s getting ready in the bathroom, Camille looks at the toilet, then she remembers a janitor’s cart being pushed, then she takes a swig of vodka, and suddenly there’s a girl looking back at her in the mirror.

Who is she? There’s no way of knowing — not yet — but let’s talk about the role memories play in the first episode of “Sharp Objects.” Camille is forced to go back to her hometown by her editor; she’s being asked to dig into the disturbing death of a local girl, and before her second day on the job is done, she’s one of the first on the scene of a second victim’s gruesome demise. Her current reality isn’t pretty, but her dark past is also banging on the door.

Wind Gap, her doll-house of a childhood home, and her family within it are dredging up memories Camille would prefer not to think about, and the conflict is summed up in one simple cut. Near the end of “Vanish,” Camille opens the door to her dead sister’s room for the first time. She remembers going to her funeral, trying to rub off the lipstick on Marion’s corpse, and being subsequently dragged from the room, wailing in front of the mourning friends and family who came to pay their respects. The thought is so painful, she shuts the door, and the next image viewers see is her closing the door to her bathroom. Camille takes a pull from her vodka-filled water bottle, puts in her earbuds, and sinks into a tub; she’s trying to block out the past, even when she’s surrounded by it.

Sharp Objects Episode 1 Eliza Scanlen

Eliza Scanlon in “Sharp Objects”

Anne Marie Fox/HBO

What’s the deal with Amma?

Amma, Camille’s half-sister, is introduced without an introduction; since Camille hasn’t seen her in years, she doesn’t realize one of the young girls skating around Natalie Keene’s memorial is actually Amma. Nor does Camille know her half-sister is there with her when the second girl’s body is found.

Out in the world, Amma is opened up. She wears her sweater tied around her waist, her white socks high above her skates, and she’s stealing flowers from a dead girl’s de facto tombstone. But at home, when Camille is formally introduced, she’s all prim and proper; she has a new dress on, a new sweater over it, and she’s extra enthusiastic with her sister.

Why the change? It’s their mother. “I’m just her little doll to dress up,” Amma says of her mom, Adora (Patricia Clarkson). “Mama says you’re incorrigible. I’m incorrigible, too — only she doesn’t know it. We’re alike.” That may be so, but expect to learn a lot more about how in the coming weeks.

What do the words mean, and are they real?

There are multiple distinct flashes of text on screen in the “Sharp Objects” premiere — appearing and disappearing, or fading in and out of focus — and they’re all creepy as hell. The first word is “dirty,” and it’s seen on the hood of Camille’s trunk right before she drives out of town. What makes it weird is two-fold: For one, the word isn’t there when Camille opens her trunk, but it’s there when she closes it. And two, Camille “remembers” the word written on her car right before she pulls up to her mom’s house.

There are a few ways to interpret this, but the most logical seems to be that Camille is worried about how her car, and thus herself, looks to her mom. After all, Adora keeps things tidy; she says the house isn’t fit for guests even though it looks absolutely pristine. She’s wearing a clean, white nightgown when she answers the door, and she’s always looking her best whenever she’s walking around the house. So it would make sense that the word “dirty” isn’t really written on Camille’s car; she’s just worried her car looks dirty to her mom.

Another, as IndieWire’s eagle-eyed Film Editor Kate Erbland points out, is a miniature clue that’s hard to interpret: When Amma is showing Camille the dollhouse, the first shot inside shows the word “GIRL” scratched out in white on one of the miniature paintings, but the next time viewers see inside, it’s not there. Could there be a clue in the painting? In the house? In the unnamed “GIRL”?

There are other instances, as well: “bad,” along with other illegible scrawling is on Camille’s desk when she picks up her laptop early in the episode, and a St. Louis exit sign reads “Last Exit to Change Your Mind” (but it’s safe to say that’s definitely not real). Still, there’s one more word — the episode title — which appears on Camille’s arm. As she settles into the bathtub, scars on her shoulder are clearly visible, and it even looks like letters have been carved into her legs. So when the word vanish slowly magnifies right before the credits roll, is that word really written on her shoulder, or is it another part of her imagination manifesting itself within her reality?

“Vanish” could mean a lot of things, too: One of the girls had vanished, and was then found, dead. But it seems more applicable to remember how Camille is trying to remove herself from the reality all around her; she doesn’t want to be here — in Wind Gap, in her home, in her mind — and during that moment in the tub, she’s trying to escape. How long will she be able to stay away? The way things are going, not very long.

[Editor’s Note: This section has been updated from the original posting.]

Sharp Objects HBO Chris Messina

Chris Messina in “Sharp Objects”

Sharp Objects HBO Amy Adams 2

And, perhaps the most burning question, will audiences finally see the iconic couple from “Julie & Julia” rekindle their onscreen romance?

OK, so (hopefully) no one has been waiting for this re-pairing, just as (hopefully) no one will be watching “Sharp Objects” solely to see Camille get together with a dude, but how strange is it to think about the last time we saw Chris Messina and Amy Adams together onscreen… compared to this? There is levity to be found within “Sharp Objects,” so while breaking down the series’ many secrets, let’s not forget to have a little fun, too.

Grade: A

“Sharp Objects” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. 

If you or someone you know struggles with self-harm or substance abuse, please seek help by contacting the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

1-800-662-HELP (4357)

For additional resources visit www.hbo.com/sharp-objects/resources.

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