Past and present collide, collapse, and do an unexpected dance in Jean-Marc Vallée (director of last year’s critically-acclaimed Big Little Lies mini-series)’s psychological new HBO drama Sharp Objects.
In Sharp Objects — an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s murder mystery novel by the same title — Amy Adams plays Camille, an unreliable narrator incapable of distinguishing the present from a past she can’t escape. Her childhood home rots beneath its polished veneer, with the mysteries of Camille’s past perhaps somehow connected to a string of murders she’s reporting on in the present.
The opening moments of Sharp Objects perfectly encapsulate the interplay between dream, memory, and reality throughout the episode. The first visual experiences are a slow-motion ride through Camille’s small Missouri hometown. The camera blows like a ghost past storefronts and Clinton/Gore posters that indicate an earlier time, and the point of view is revealed to be that of a younger Camille (Sofia Lillis) and her little sister, Marian (Lulu Wilson), their arms out to hold balance as they speed down the streets on roller blades. They sneak into a beautiful old home — carefully avoiding the man and lady of the house — and sneak upstairs to discover an adult Camille lying in bed. Young Camille draws an unfurled paper clip and presses it into adult Camille’s palm, at once waking her and revealing to the viewer that the sequence had been a dream.
Camille’s boss has sent her back to her hometown of Wind Gap to cover the murder of a little girl that could be serial in nature. She protests and ultimately relents, packing her messy apartment and cracked cell phone quickly after chugging a mini bottle of vodka, to be followed by other various alcohols and chain-smoking to cool music as she exits St. Louis towards Wind Gap. At a seedy motel, she dumps her purse, full of mini alcohol bottles in the double digits and a carton of Parlamints, on the bed and works on another few drinks in the bath. Flickers and flashes of memory again take her back to her childhood, following boys with BB guns through the woods of her hometown. She follows the rascals and happens upon a an abandoned shed filled with disturbing images of women being raped and what appear to be bloody weapons. It’s a confusing, disturbing, and apparently formative memory for Camille.
Camille finds her way to the reluctant sheriff’s office, who doesn’t want the murder and disappearance to take over the narrative about his town. After coming up dry at the police station, she joins the search for another missing girl, running into an old family acquaintance, Jackie (Elizabeth Perkins). Jackie forebodes Camille’s mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson)’s fickle tendencies, later revealed when Adora — having not heard from her daughter in many months — nearly refuses to let Camille into the house. Their relationship is immediately contentious, her mother expressing nearly as much animosity about Camille’s coverage of the murders as Camille herself originally did in her editor’s office. Similar to the sheriff, Adora doesn’t want coverage of a string of murders to besmirch the town’s reputation.
The old house holds many ghosts — flashes of young Camille and her sister come to her over and over in various rooms of the home, sometimes in full flashback, a jump cut from the reality of the present to the unreliable recollections of the alcoholic Camille. Other times the omnipresent past is symbolized in more subtle ways — the specter of a young Camille or other family member seated quietly, almost imperceptibly in the corner of the screen during another scene. The ambiguous transitions between present and past underline the pervasiveness of Camille’s dark memories of this place. She herself can barely control when she is present and when she is lost in the reveries of her childhood in Wind Gap.
Camille extracts herself from the strange familiarity of her childhood home, to a local bar where she happens upon an investigator from the disappearance and murder — Detective Richard Willis (Chris Messina), and the brother of the missing girl. Neither offer any new information for her story, and in an instant flash, Camille awakens the next morning, having spent the night in her car outside the bar.
Adora confronts Camille when she arrives back home in the morning, unhappy with the impression Camille leaves on others. Camille empties more small, empty alcohol bottles on her bed, and heads out to the gas station to replenish her stash, then to interview the father of the murdered girl — but not before rinsing with Listerine in her car. Camille is always masking her drinking, literally with mints and mouthwash, and with her words and actions around others — she refuses a drink from Jackie and later from her mother, claiming she is “on the job,” despite her near constant imbibing since she was first assigned the story. The interview with the murdered girl’s father provides little helpful insight, though the man himself seems suspicious. Later that afternoon Camille gets an unexpected gruesome break in the story — she happens upon the body of the other missing girl, propped up as though staged in an alley window.
Later back at home, Amma (Eliza Scanlen), Adora’s step-daughter, comes down the stairs, though she has already been introduced. Camille has encountered a more mature, smoking and rollerblading Amma earlier in the episode, leading a gang of girls elsewhere in the town. But at home, Amma she is nearly unrecognizable. Here, performs the role of a perfect young lady, with a floral print dress, white cardigan, and even a bow in her hair. Amma’s perfected alter-ego — her mother’s little doll, she says — reminds Camille of her younger sister’s funeral. She recalls approaching the casket, and seeing her little sister’s body still and perfectly styled, like a little doll herself. Camille remembers herself desperately attempting to right her sister’s appearance, as she slips into a bath. Camille’s naked skin in the low light reveals words carved all over her body, scarred into her skin.
Sharp Objects’ protagonist feels an urgent self-destructive need to carve into her own flesh. This unquenchable need to go beyond the surface to see what lies beneath is a metaphor for her search an explanation for the murders taking place in her hometown, and the truth about her own family and past.
Sharp Objects continues Sunday nights on HBO.
Vanish was written by Gillian Flynn and Marti Noxon and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée.
Photos and video credit courtesy of HBO.
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