HBO’s “Sharp Objects” is a hypnotic ghost story about trauma

Amy Adams is stellar in this adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s mystery novel.
Amy Adams is stellar in this adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s mystery novel.
Image: HBO
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Those few seconds between wakefulness and sleep, when you span the gap between reality and dream—neither fully conscious nor completely alert—are difficult to capture on film. Sharp Objects, the new HBO limited series based on the book of the same name by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, comes pretty close.

The series, which debuts Sunday, July 8 at 9pm US eastern time, follows Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), a journalist fresh off a stint in rehab for self-harm who is sent by her editor to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri to investigate the murder of one girl and the disappearance of another. Camille, still haunted by the loss of her young sister to an unclear illness many years ago (as well as a number of other unspeakable horrors she endured as a young woman), exists somewhere between these states of wakefulness and dreamlike hallucination—the razor-thin margin that separates present and past.

Camille returns to her domineering mother Adora Crellin’s (Patricia Clarkson) palatial estate, adorned with real ivory floors and a large wraparound veranda. It’s in this home that Camille starts seeing visions of her dead sister, Marian, lying in her old bed, and staring at her from across the hall. And it’s where she meets her 14-year-old half sister, Amma (Eliza Scanlen), daughter of Adora and Camille’s hapless, impotent step-father, Alan Crellin. Amma plays with a dollhouse and acts as the prototypical “good girl” in the presence of Adora, but when out with her friends, she drinks heavily, does drugs, and wields her sexuality to make boys do what she wants.

All three women are traumatized in their own ways—Adora from the death of Marian, Camille from the death of Marian and her mother’s lifelong resentment of her, and Amma from not being Marian. But Sharp Objects is ultimately Camille’s heartbreaking story, and it’s anchored by a spellbinding, profoundly truthful performance by Adams.

All eight episodes (seven of which were made available to critics) are directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, in his second collaboration with HBO after last year’s breakout hit, Big Little Lies. Those familiar with the director’s work will recognize his creative flourishes, here used effectively to depict the dreamlike nature of memory, the weight of childhood trauma. Quick flashes of images—a ceiling fan, a spider, a dead sister—intersect scenes, conveying Camille’s thoughts and memories. There aren’t many typical “flashback” sequences, because that’s not how our brains actually work. We don’t have long, vivid memories in the middle of our days. Rather, memories often just appear out of nowhere, sometimes connected to our thoughts, sometimes not. The images don’t always make sense.

These fleeting snapshots, employed liberally throughout the show, serve to drive home one of the central themes of Flynn’s work, adapted for TV by the prolific writer-producer Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, UnREAL): Grief is permanent.

Whether it’s a young woman literally scarred head-to-toe from cut marks, or a Podunk American town that can’t get over losing the Civil War, people and places are irrevocably altered by their histories, and the resulting months and years are simply efforts to reconcile one’s existence with the past. For Wind Gap, a town that systematically lets slide the sexual assault of minors, it’s about denial, preservation. For Camille, though, it’s just survival. Every day survived is a day lived.

Those who have experienced a significant trauma sometimes wear it like a cloak, hiding behind it rather than from it. Camille avoids getting close to anyone, though she entertains the idea of becoming intimate with Richard Willis (Chris Messina), a detective from nearby Kansas City brought in to assist in the investigation. Richard tries to see behind Camille’s cloak, but he doesn’t understand that it’s a part of her, sewed into her existence. She, like the dead sister she dreams of between pulls of vodka, is really a ghost.

hbo sharp objects
Image: HBO

Sharp Objects is riddled with these ghosts—not literal ones in the horror-movie sense of the word, but still very real ones. Adora’s Southern palace will always be haunted, because she and her two living daughters make it so. Wind Gap, a town of traumas—some shared and others, like Camille’s, endured alone—is a ghost town. In a rare moment of heavy-handedness for the series, a man, haunted by something he’d done as a teenager, declares, “History is history. You can’t change it, you just learn from it.” Wind Gap hasn’t learned a thing. The real dramatic tension here is whether or not Camille can learn something from her own history, before another girl ends up dead.

With excellent work from Noxon, Flynn, and Vallée, as well as Adams and the rest of the cast, Sharp Objects is yet another entry in a long line of great HBO miniseries, from Band of Brothers to 2016’s crime drama The Night Of. In an age of constant renewals and shows that refuse to bow out when they’re on top, there’s something to be said for the beauty of a self-contained story, well-told—as Sharp Objects is.

Then again, Big Little Lies was supposed to be that, too, until HBO ordered a second season (to star Meryl Streep, because season one’s all-star cast apparently wasn’t enough). Already, Flynn and Adams are saying they might want to continue Camille’s story in some form after this eight-episode limited run.