Even with its host of understated, complex characters and the luridly perplexing mystery at its heart, the most noticeable feat of the HBO miniseries “Sharp Objects” is its ability to convey sticky summer humidity through the small screen.
This might seem like a trivial detail to focus on from a story with so many dramatic features, but it’s a telling one: Director Jean Marc-Vallée’s trademark up-close-and-personal style and languid camerawork help illustrate one of the most evocative atmospheres currently on television.
Wind Gap, Missouri, the site of the show, might be fictitious, but this intense attention to detail, this almost tangible stickiness that pervades every crevice of the miniseries, gives the otherworldly small town very real substance.
Based on Gillian Flynn’s bombshell of a debut novel, “Sharp Objects” was picked up by HBO as an eight-part miniseries. Equal parts murder mystery, lurid Southern gothic and claustrophobic family drama, it tracks the return of journalist Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) to her home in Wind Gap. She has been sent back by her editor to write a piece on a recent spate of missing and murdered girls. Under the roof of her soft-spoken tyrant mother Adora Crellin (Patricia Clarkson), Camille reconnects with her estranged half-sister Amma (Eliza Scanlen) and learns some truths about the murders that strike dangerously close to home.
Although a murder lies at the heart of the miniseries, this plotline drifts lazily along for much of the time; clearly, the plot is not the main focus of “Sharp Objects.” This is a character study first and foremost — and the characters in question are the women of the Crellin household.
Adams, Clarkson and Scanlen each bring their characters so intensely to life that you can almost feel their erratic pulses lining the beats of the austere script Marti Noxon has adapted. Each of the three women has a thorny past as well as multiple personas that flare in and out of being. And each actress’s ability to embody the Crellin clan’s dysfunction contributes as much to Wind Gap’s oppressive atmosphere as the artful camerawork. Undeniably, the prickly dynamic among the three is as suffocating as the Wind Gap summer heat.
Adams draws and stretches the silences of the reticent Camille into a tortured but vivid character portrait. With every swig of vodka from her repurposed Evian bottle, every thousand-yard stare, every cynical chuckle, Adams paints new traumas into Camille. Twisted into silent detachment by a difficult past, Camille could easily veer into vacancy, but Adams pulls her from the brink, imbuing the burden from this past into Camille’s every move. The result is a character who moves and breathes pain; she is difficult to watch, but a compelling window into a town paved with violence.
The culprit who’s caused much of Camille’s instability, Adora, is played to overdramatic perfection by Clarkson. A Southern belle through and through, Adora floats through her opulent, dimly lit mansion like a tragic antebellum ghost. Clarkson’s simpering performance in Adora’s quieter moments makes her viciousness toward Camille all the more disquieting. Clarkson basks in the energy of a perpetrator of abuse with a perpetual victim complex, creating in Adora a hauntingly wicked matriarch who fully leans into the Southern gothic tradition of melodrama.
Perhaps the most impressive performance comes from the youngest presence on-screen. A manipulative young teen dancing across the edge from childhood into adolescence, Amma is fully aware of the power of her emergent pubescence. Scanlen deftly embodies so many different personas under the umbrella that is Amma — the child preening under her mother’s smothering affection, the sexually aggressive teenager, the sister in peril, the cruel bully. In Scanlen’s magnetic performance, we, too, are drawn into her subterfuge. Toward the end of the series, Amma discloses that she is partial to Persephone, and there’s no better way to describe her than in relation to the goddess. Like Persephone, Amma exists in several worlds; like Persephone, too, she doesn’t fully exist in any.
Anchored in these three powerful performances, “Sharp Objects” colors in the rest of the backdrop of Wind Gap with irresistibly beautiful cinematography. The camera floats in forest pools and swoops behind idle Rollerbladers before slowing to a crawl as it plunges into the depths of the Crellin estate. And at the fringes of these very classic scenes of small-town Americana, shockingly and stunningly, are eerie, surrealist elements that almost tip into horror.
“Sharp Objects” finds its strengths in these subtle glimmers of evil. And just as it seems that the murder mystery itself falls to the wayside in favor of these more delicious secrets, the darkness lurking beneath Wind Gap and the Crellins bleeds into the main plot in a ghastly final shock.