“Sharp Objects” is a story told in flashes: flashes of bright light interrupting long streaks of black shadows; flashes of people, long dead, popping into empty mirrors; flashes of haunting memories burning with more potency than the grisly murders disturbing the present day town of Wind Gap, Missouri.
Built from these literal and figurative flashes are long stretches of arresting inspiration. Producer Jason Blum, showrunner Marti Noxon, and director Jean-Marc Vallée each find ways to enliven a slow-burn limited series that amounts to a lot, even if it takes its time cluing in the audience. “Sharp Objects” is a small town murder mystery that can, at times, be perplexingly personal. But with Amy Adams delivering career-best work and a transportive diegetic nurtured to great effect, the HBO drama pays off on a simple premise twisted into one dark, nasty story.
Based on Gillian Flynn’s debut novel of the same name, the eight-part series picks up on Camille Preaker (Adams), a reporter in St. Louis who’s trying to overcome recent, undisclosed trauma and get back to work. At the behest of her editor Frank (Miguel Sandoval), she accepts an assignment in the hometown she left behind: a young girl has been murdered, and the paper wants some local color to go along with an underreported story.
The problem with this proposal is two-fold: For one, Camille does not have fond memories of Wind Gap, a (fictional) municipality in the boonies of Missouri with Southern roots — and historic biases — so strong the town has been all but passed over by time. She lost a sister there, and she’s not friendly with her mother, Adora (the great Patricia Clarkson). That makes for bad memories, which are only exacerbated by her preferred coping mechanism for that aforementioned trauma: drinking. Lots and lots of drinking.
Nevertheless, she persists. Her return to the town is crafted with imagery shown again and again in — you guessed it — flashes throughout seven episodes. There’s a big red train-car with “Wind Gap” written on the side. There’s a gas station on a prominent corner and a tire mart with a mural of an old serviceman painted on the side. There’s a fountain off Main St. near the police station, and a long alley for walking or looking through, but not driving. Vallée uses these repeating, if occasionally altered, shots to play with time. Sometimes Camille is seeing what’s happening right in front of her, like when she pulls into town and introduces herself to the local police chief. Other times she’s remembering her childhood, where she skated through these same streets on roller skates, with her kid sister in tow.
Still other scenes smash these two time periods together, most effectively with Camille’s half-sister, Amma (Eliza Scanlen). Still in school, Amma is a rebellious troublemaker who puts on airs for her mother and select other adults. She looks a bit like Camille, a bit like Camille’s sister, and she, too, likes to prowl the town on outdated skates. Like the laces that never come undone, she ties together the direction’s unsettling sense of place — “Sharp Objects” is the rare series to transport you out of your living room and into a hot and sweaty town, each and every week — with the writing’s consciously checked character development. Yet for the actor, Amma has got a lot lurking under the surface, and Scanlen explores each level with flair; the young star will be a relative unknown no more once viewers lay eyes on this performance.
The standouts, aside from Vallée’s evocative eye, are all women: Adams, Scanlen, a crazy good turn from Clarkson, plus Flynn’s source material and Noxon’s script. The latter spends a good chunk of the early episodes holding back information; the gripping pilot sets up so many mysteries, separating them all isn’t possible until much later in the season. Questions loom, but like a warm summer’s night, “Sharp Objects” does a fine job of lulling viewers into a sense of satisfaction; you’ll be content spending time here, even if the delay can feel prolonged until all is revealed. There are redundancies in this tone poem, from the shot repetition to the drinking to the suspects themselves, but the evoked sense of place more than makes up for them, especially as the sleight of hand in early episodes pays off for one stunning latter half.
Above it all is Amy Adams. The five-time Oscar nominee is set to become another top-tier actress accorded TV’s most prestigious honor before the silly film folks smarten up, but her turn is more than awards-worthy; it’s an exercise in humility and endurance. Camille is literally covered in clichés (we’ll have more on her “Memento”-esque body stylings when spoilers aren’t a concern), but Adams is so subdued in every other measurable quality, her character never spills over into farce. So much of her power is found when she turns inside herself, allowing her eyes to well-up but not burst or crossing her arms in embarrassment instead of swinging them around for maximum impact. She can imbue Camille with a fearless spirit and a broken one, sometimes simultaneously, and it’s always an awesome sight. Adams trusts her director and the writing, but she also trusts herself.
“Sharp Objects” is a story told in flashes, but it’s always burning. From Adams to Vallée to Noxon, this team won’t let it go out.
“Sharp Objects” premieres Sunday, July 8 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.