“Sharp Objects” Tells Its Murderous Tale as a Mood Piece
HBO’s “Sharp Objects” concluded its eight-episode run Sunday night with as many frightening moments as one might expect in a horror movie. It’s not of that genre, even though Jason Blum, the head of Blumhouse Productions and all their frightener franchises, was one of the limited series’ executive producers. Some may have even quantified the show as a mystery, and indeed, a series of murders did drive the plot just as it did in Gillian Flynn’s original 2006 source novel. Yet, at the end of it all, despite some last minute revelations pointing to various killers, this was a mood piece first and foremost, an investigation more into the mind of main character Camille Preaker than any small-town murders.
Camille was played by Amy Adams, doing some of her most extraordinary work, and it was smart to cast such a likable actress as the lead. Throughout the series, the actions by Camille often made it hard to like her and having such an inherently relatable actress certainly helped draw us to her. Camille was the Wind Gap native, sent back to her home town in Missouri, to report on the murder of a teen girl and the disappearance of another. And in her capacity as a journalist, Camille crossed enough ethical lines and displayed incredible lapses of judgment that in most stories, such traits would be assigned to the villain.
The story’s main character was a hopeless alcoholic who drove around the town day and night swigging down vodka disguised as water in an Evian bottle. Camille slept with Detective Richard Willis (Chris Messina), insinuating herself into the story via her overt promiscuity. She also bedded prime suspect John Keene (Taylor John Smith), the brother of the lost girl who showed up as the second murder victim. The out-of-control reporter came and went as she wanted, trampling over rules, the egos of the townspeople, and becoming as much of the story as anyone else through her consistently immature behavior. Camille even did drugs with the underage teens in the town.
Despite her atrocious behavior, Camille remained sympathetic due to two key factors. First, most of those around her were as egregious in their behavior, if not worse, as she was in hers. Her rich and powerful mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson) was a control freak whose need to be Queen Bee in Wind Gap led her to rule everything and everyone with an iron fist. Old friend Jackie O’Neill (Elizabeth Perkins) was a hopeless gossip and drunk, sarcastically condemning all from the sidelines. Bill Vickery (Matt Craven), the town’s sheriff was as corrupt as he was lazy. Camille’s stepfather Alan Crellin (Henry Czerny) was a feckless and henpecked shell of a man whose passion for eclectic LP’s was equaled only by his blithe rudeness. And Willis was an arrogant and sexist dick in both senses of the word.
Almost all the men in the story were awful, spineless, and easily manipulated by the stronger women around them. In fact, the females surrounding Camille allowed her to claim a certain amount of saintliness by comparison. She may have been self-destructive while she carved words into her flesh, but her morality was never wholly excised. Her half-sister Amma Crellin (Eliza Scanlen) seemed utterly without a moral rudder as evidenced by most of the 14-year-old’s abhorrent behavior. The wanton youth drank, did drugs, fooled around with boys, and maybe even her teacher; all the while roaming around town on skates with her two girlfriends like a pack of wolves. Amma envied Camille and her bad girl rep, but the youngster was already a far greater beast.
The other factor that enabled the viewer to sympathize with Camille was her tragic background, told through flashbacks and flash cuts from her past interwoven throughout the modern-day narrative. The young Camille (Sophia Lillis) was shown to be incredibly close to her half-sister Marian (Lulu Wilson) 20 years ago, and the young girl’s mysterious death killed most off a great deal of Camille’s soul with it. Marian was the only love that Camille had known since her mother couldn’t summon such feelings due to her being the offspring of an affair in high school. Add to the mix the fact that Camille was likely gang-raped in the woods by a batch of sniggering boysand it becomes abundantly clear that Camille could only turn into one hot mess.
Director Jean-Marc Vallee never let us forget that Camille’s past was always as present in her mind as her present. No matter where she was – in her car, talking to townsfolk about the murders, lying in the bed in her mother’s mansion at night – Camille’s thoughts always were crowded with moments from her horrible past. At times, it played like a fever dream, but what Vallee was really demonstrating was how Camille’s history and its lasting pain was her constant companion, intoxicating her very being more than any drink, drug or orgasm.
All of the images of Camille’s past were seamlessly edited into the narrative, sometimes only registering as little more than subliminal cuts. Vallee and the screenwriters never spent a long time on any one flashback. In fact, a shot of a janitor’s bottle of cleaning fluid atop his cart flashed across the screen on more than one occasion in the earliest episodes. What did it mean? What memory was it eluding to? Finally, about midway through the series, it was revealed to be the weapon of fellow psych ward patient Alice (Sydney Sweeney) who drank its contents to kill herself while rooming with Camille. Yet, even then, the shot in context was not underlined. Again, it was there less for narrative clarity and more for an expression of Camille’s tortured mind.
Vallee and his writers, including Flynn and exec producer Marti Noxon, clearly never set out to tell a whodunnit in the traditional sense along the likes of Conan Doyle or Christie. The mystery at the center of Wind Gap was as much Camille as the revelations of the killings. Even when it was revealed that the deranged Adora had poisoned Marian through her Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy psychosis and was ultimately arrested for attempting to kill both Amma and Camille in a similar fashion, there was never any big denouement scene. Instead, this miniseries told its finale through quick flashes of Adora’s arrest and trial as remembered by Camille.
In one of the miniseries’ cheekiest moves, the truth of who killed those Wind Gap teen girls was held until the final minute. Despite Adora’s arrest for those murders as well, it was her daughter Amma who carried them out with a little help from her roller-skating friends. The apple sure didn’t fall far from the tree, and Adora’s meddling and twisted version of love destroyed the self-worth of both Camille and Amma. It was a fantastic rug pull on the surface, but director Vallee had been pointing to Amma since the beginning.
Vallee ensured that all the scenes of roller skating were imbued with menace. Amma’s bedroom wall was a rich red, echoing the blood theme throughout, whether it was Marian coughing up blood or droplets of Camille’s wounds splashing on the floor. Even when Camille bonded with Amma while they skated home one night, Vallee shot the youngster as if she was a predatory hawk, all but descending upon her older half-sister.
Perhaps it was being surrounded by such evil – the psychopathic mother, half-sister, sexist men, discriminating locals – that kept us clinging to Camille as well. She hurt herself, true, but those miscreants hurt her more. “Sharp Objects” was a story that savaged many such villains including the small-town hypocrites, the outdated Southern sense of history, and vicious women forgoing feminist ideals to crucify their sisters. No razor cut as close to the bone.
In the end, Camille managed to save some lives, ensure that her mother went to jail, and filed a great story. (We finally got to her how beautifully she could write when Miguel Sandoval as her editor Frank Curry read the moving last paragraph from her final article.) Yet, despite these victories, there is no genuine relief for Camille, not when she realizes the cycle of violence repeated a generation. Not only were the miniseries final words disturbing as hell, Amma’s request to Camille, “Don’t Tell Mama” when the truth of her serial killing is discovered, but so were the final flash images Vallee inserted as the end credits ran. Amma’s face is shown, both gleeful and vicious, as she murdered those two Wind Gap teens and continues her murderous inclinations by killing a new friend in St. Louis. Camille can never recover now, and the past and present will continue to blend seamlessly in her tortured mind.
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