The most-anticipated TV drama of the summer, Sharp Objects, a psychological thriller based on the debut novel of Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, certainly lives up to its title. From the very first scene – in which an unsettling childhood flashback morphs seamlessly into a present-day bedroom – we’re in treacherous territory, never sure when we might tread on something nasty and cut ourselves, or witness something that makes us want to hurriedly look away.
US cable network HBO has carved out a reputation for graphic violence in shows from The Sopranos to Game of Thrones, but here the gore is all the more potent for being unexpected. Adapted by Flynn herself, with the help of writer Marti Noxon and director Jean-Marc Vallée, who was behind another major recent HBO hit, Big Little Lies, the series tells the story of Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), a Chicago journalist forced by her editor to return to Wind Gap, the sleepy Missouri hometown she escaped from years ago, to investigate a possible serial killer.
One young girl is dead, another missing – and Camille’s editor can smell a story. A classy story, he says: a meditation on death and grief in a small community, from the perspective of a returning native. But what he (and we) can really smell is blood – and, in due course, the body of the missing girl turns up, posed just like a stylish, scarlet-smeared doll.
Gruesomely, it later transpires that she and the other victim had their teeth removed by the killer. Murders aside, though, Camille has her own problems, and the show is as much about toxic family and self-destruction as it is crime. She’s an alcoholic and compulsive self-harmer, with an itching need to carve words – seemingly mundane, everyday words, suddenly freighted with dangerous significance – into various surfaces, including her own skin.
Beneath her high-necked, long-sleeved clothes, her body is criss-crossed with scars. But it’s Adams’s face, taut with the effort of her self-control, on which the camera lingers. You don’t need to look too far to guess where her issues stem from. Camille’s mother, Adora, played to pale-pink-gowned perfection by Patricia Clarkson, is a narcissist and perpetual victim, wielding her “delicacy” like a weapon.
In every stolen scene, it’s as if she’s on a stage: performing, grandstanding, histrionically bewailing her own sorrows to the exclusion of everyone else’s. Camille is traumatised from discovering a body? How dare she upset her mother by mentioning such horrible things.
The show is haunted by young women, both dead and alive. So while the face of the latest murder victim smiles down from all the “missing” posters around town, another girl lurks in the corners of Camille’s memory: her sister, Marian, who died when they were both children. And then there’s her teenage half-sister, Amma (Eliza Scanlen). When we first meet her, Amma is disconcertingly sophisticated and self-assured but, at home, she allows the smothering Adora to dress her as if she is much younger, all ribbons and pretty frocks, and acts more like an eight-year-old than a teenager.
It’s grotesque – and another sign that things in Wind Gap, and in Camille’s own home, are deeply unhealthy. A finely tuned sense of unease, coupled with Adams’s compelling performance, keeps Sharp Objects from ever feeling blunt, even if the first three episodes are a little slow-moving. The unsettling atmosphere is given priority over the action initially, but as the mystery builds, the deliciously poisonous Wind Gap looks likely to accrue enough of both to sustain our interest.
You’ll sense from the start that something is rotten – and watch, on edge, to find out just how deep the decay goes.
Sharp Objects begins on Sky Atlantic on July 9