HBO has in recent years been consistent in it’s releases of binge-worthy TV shows, such as the infamous Game of Thrones (2011-ongoing) and 2017’s Big Little Lies. Most recently on the list and producing just as much of as a hit is Sharp Objects starring Amy Adams. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, the eight-episode series is based on Gillian Flynn’s 2006 novel of the same name. With an impressive 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, this typical TV thriller turns out not to be typical at all- something myself, as an avid film and TV lover, was immensely pleased to find.
The first thing I immediately noticed when settling into Sharp Objects was the individual style Vallee crafts within a few minuets of the story. This tone is primarily made of sudden, fast cutaways (frames lasting only a fraction of a second) to the point where looking down for a handful of popcorn could make you miss something vital. This isn’t a complaint, I should add. It’s not only an effective away to communicate information quickly but grips audience’s attention- their phones no longer a temptation. Secondly, the film utters an almost indie-film kind of subtlety. The colour palette is muted but clear in its hues of green and oranges. Behaviours, such as the protagonists mother tugging of her eyelash, are carefully interwoven mannerisms that communicate character without audiences even noticing.
Alcoholic journalist Camille Peaker acts as our only gateway into the small-town world of Wind Gap, Missouri. The phrase ‘alcoholic journalist’ seems at once to conjure up a villainous character; journalists stereo-typically using the tragedies of real lives to sell their stories on magazine covers, cashing in on the twisting of people’s words. And adding alcoholic onto it doesn’t help much either. However, these traits in fact have no dampening effect on how we see the character of Peaker; instead, we are presented with a kind-hearted but troubled soul. Immediately we sympathize, and just as she keeps a distant mistrust of everyone she meets, so do we.
Another motif I noticed to play a recurring role in Sharp Objects was the use of music. Vallee constructs the audio into an artform as much as he does the visuals. However, it’s the diegetic soundtrack that takes centre stage here. That meaning, Peaker is established with an almost habitual routine of putting on music before she drives. The rock playlist (featuring a lot of Led Zeppelin) Camille blasts as she chain-smokes cigarettes and swigs back miniature bottles of vodka evoke an almost rebellious teenage image. Interesting, as Peaker is a fully-grown woman working on her writing career. Through this Vallee brilliantly portrays the complexities of Peaker’s character, making use of car scenes that navigate the audience between locations to develop who Camille is as a person. These songs are also recycled as Vallee uses them as signals to flag certain emotions within the protagonist. Certain songs match certain moods. A superb method of guiding the audience’s reactions without actually telling them via heavy dialogue.
Believing the murder mystery genre to be exhausted by now, what with the constant ream of police detective TV shows, it’s refreshing to see Sharp Objects opting instead for a journalistic perspective. Focusing more on the protagonist and her past, we don’t follow a police detective and their witty sidekick through the uncovering of a serial killer, as we’ve done thousands of times. We view the crimes through the lens of a wannabe Pulitzer prize winner, looking for a good scoop to send back to her editor. This unusual approach sways audience’s attention away from the intricacies of clues, leads, interviews etc. and more onto the repercussions such an awful event has on those close to the victims.
Despite film makers and critics claiming the art of editing is to remain ‘unseen’, Sharp Objects decidedly rebels against this theory (perhaps as an extension of the characters?) and makes the cuts sharply distinct. Flashbacks cutaway constantly, oftentimes making little sense to the audience until later in the story. The eerie silence that accompanies these jarring images add a whole other layer of mystery, acting as little scraps of information and glimpses into the past we so want to discover.
Undoubtedly one of Adams best performances, the acting of all cast members is faultless. The ‘murder mystery’ itself is well balanced. Not surrendering to mundane predictability, yet stops itself from reaching the unrealistic extremities many crimes shows fall into these days. Subplots neatly intermingle and no detail is included by mistake. Because of this the audience are able to work out the answer to who dunnit? if they tried…but it would take effort. This equates to an engaging narrative that doesn’t spoon-feed us information, but that feeling of its on the tip of my tongue lingers on.
Themes of childhood and innocence; self-destruction and mental illness; past and present; family, gossip and ‘small town’ life; secrecy, crime and sacrifice are all reflected in Vallee’s informed visual motifs, with Ronald Plante cinematography telling a story all by itself. Amy Adams dazzles in this unpredictable, gripping and oftentimes heart-wrenching TV adaption that expertly manipulates the visual tools dispensable to Vallee as filmmaker. A clear direction and tone are established, with both jaw-dropping plot-twists and more subtle revelations that keep you on the edge of your seat.
I highly recommend this thrilling, skillfully made series that knows exactly when to scream out loud and when to stay silent. (However, be warned of particularly dark themes, trigger warnings and some graphic imagery.)