Nothing proves the summer TV landscape has shifted quite like debuting some Emmy bait in the wake of Independence Day. And Sharp Objects, the HBO adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel of the same name, proves itself an early contender for next year’s awards. Showrunner Marti Noxon deftly interprets and expands on Flynn’s complex themes and even more complicated women, while director Jean-Marc Vallée brings the novel’s not-so-sleepy hamlet to stifling, ominous life. This simmering crime drama also boasts a lead performance from Amy Adams so raw and powerful, it could level the Midwestern town that’s the setting for several mysterious deaths.
Flynn’s adapted one of her works before, having teamed up with David Fincher for 2014’s Gone Girl. She also helps steward this reimagining of her debut novel, sharing writing duties with Noxon and Cloak & Dagger scribes Dawn Kamoche and Ariella Blejer, among others. The Sharp Objects author has long said she’s very fond of her lead character, Camille Preaker (Adams), a journalist who spends much of the book (and series) on the knife’s edge between recovery and complete self-destruction. That affection is shown in Flynn’s perseverance, both in getting the book published and holding out for collaborators—Noxon, Adams, and Vallée—who understood her vision for the series. Like the source material, Sharp Objects straddles the line between Southern gothic and psychological thriller, either of which would scratch an itch for networks and streaming platforms. But its pulpiness is ultimately a vehicle for a fascinating exploration of violence, specifically the kinds wrought upon and by women.
Egged on by her newsroom editor Frank Curry (Miguel Sandoval), Camille reluctantly returns to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, where a young girl has gone missing one year after another girl was found mutilated and murdered. The purpose of the assignment is multifold: Frank believes the crimes could be connected, and he also senses Camille is running from her past. Soon, Camille’s back under the multi-gabled roof of her mother Adora Crellin (Patricia Clarkson), whom she almost exclusively refers to by her first name. The two women have few illusions about the future of their relationship, but it’s clear that they view Camille’s upbringing in very different lights. Adora sees Camille’s departure as an affront, while her daughter thinks she barely made it out of adolescence alive. Camille’s homecoming is made even more fraught by the presence of Amma (Eliza Scanlen), her precocious half-sister, whose own rebellious streak is glimpsed throughout the seven episodes made available for review.
Sharp Objects builds a creeping mystery, its sedate pace mimicking that of small towns. Vallée, who’s traded the extravagant homes and sweeping vistas of Big Little Lies for middle America, also captures their warmth and insularity, juxtaposing shots of sunny, open fields with dimly lit interiors that obscure characters’ faces—and their motivations. The whodunit gradually sucks you in, just as Camille’s investigation intertwines with that of Detective Richard Willis (Chris Messina), a Kansas City hotshot recruited by a flummoxed local police force. But the real discoveries are in Camille’s past, or sitting across from her on the veranda. Just as in her book, Flynn lends greater weight to the story of a splintered family, whose true legacy is far darker than even its ownership of a slaughterhouse would suggest.
Through flashbacks and several present-day spats, the series pieces together Camille’s history of abuse, both at her mother’s hand and her own. Most of the negative effects are readily on display, but Sharp Objects also keeps some tricks up its sleeves. Great performances from Clarkson and Scanlen help make the cold war at home more riveting than the slow burn of the murder mystery, but the pitch-perfect casting of Adams is Sharp Objects’ greatest asset. The five-time Oscar nominee fully embodies the role of a woman scarred both literally and figuratively, smothering the effervescence and pluck she’s famous for under a low drawl, drab wardrobe, and prosthetics that make up Camille’s self-branded skin. But Adams also gives us a peek at the younger Camille, a prepossessing queen bee in training like Amma. All she has to do to win over Messina’s detective hold most of Wind Gap’s men in thrall is flash a quip or a smile. These glimpses at her past make her downward spiral even more tragic as Sharp Objects ambles toward its conclusion.
When it was first published, Sharp Objects put a new spin on the cycle of violence by positioning women as the victims and abusers, something that is still rarely seen in media. This is a story about women’s anger and agency, two things that aren’t alluded to when the characters rattle off traditional gender roles. But one of Sharp Objects’ subversive twists is relegating the same men who brag about their strength and potential for violence to the periphery. Women run this town: its businesses, its gossip, its social order. Adora holds the town’s life in her hands because she owns the hog-butchering plant that employs virtually all the adults, which makes her Wind Gap’s matriarch. And when this small-town life is disrupted by disappearing girls, it’s Camille who refuses to let their stories fade into the town’s lore, which is already full of cautionary tales about willful young women, including Camille. As she slowly takes control of the narrative surrounding these crimes, Sharp Objects interrogates a culture that enables and fetishizes violence against women.