“When someone says, ‘Bless your heart,’ they really mean, ‘F— you.’ ” – Amy Adams’ Camille, explaining the ways of her hometown in “Sharp Objects.”
Gillian Flynn’s 2006 debut novel “Sharp Objects” could have been adapted for the big screen, and with the right mixture of director, screenwriter and cast, it could have been a sensationally lurid and utterly satisfying thriller a la “Gone Girl.”
Though packed with intrigue and dark secrets and twists, the novel is a relatively slim 254 pages — so with HBO presenting an eight-part limited series based on the book, one might be concerned the material has been stretched to the point of losing its edge.
Not to worry. I’ve seen seven of the eight episodes, and I believe “Sharp Objects” should top your list of summer appointment TV, starting with the series premiere at 8 p.m. Sunday.
Graced with some of the best performances Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson have ever given, directed with sure-handed and sometimes flamboyant style by Jean-Marc Vallee and dripping with honey-coated but often barbed dialogue, “Sharp Objects” is flat-out great television.
You’re going to hear a lot of talk along the lines of, “If you liked ‘Big Little Lies,’ you’ll love ‘Sharp Objects,’ ” and it’s a fair comparison.
Director Vallee (whose film work includes “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild”) is behind the camera for every episode of “Objects,” just as he was for “Lies.” Once again, Vallee demonstrates a masterful gift for storytelling — even though some of the quick cuts and flashbacks and stylistic flourishes might cause you to temporarily lose your grip on some plot developments as you try to soak it all in.
Both series are based on novels that are irresistibly page-turning (or finger-sliding, in the case of e-books). Both series feature some of the best actresses in the world doing spectacular work playing impressive, smart, complicated, perhaps duplicitous characters.
And both series are enormously entertaining, even when we get a little exasperated by some of the more obvious red herrings — and frustrated when people who should know better do some really stupid and self-destructive things. (Kind of like real life.)
The invaluable Amy Adams hits myriad emotional notes and gives an Emmy-worthy performance as Camille Preaker, a talented but underachieving journalist for a St. Louis newspaper. (In the novel, Camille worked for a Chicago paper.) Camille’s editor sends her to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two unsolved murders of young girls. This could be a chance for Camille to do her best work ever — and to face her tragic past and deal with unresolved family issues.
Once Camille arrives home, she essentially becomes the third detective investigating the murders several months apart of two local girls, both about 13. Already working the case is Vickery (Matt Craven), the local police chief who at times seems more interested in protecting the town’s image than solving the crimes, and Richard Willis (Chris Messina), a cynical detective from Kansas City who was brought in at Vickery’s request — a move Vickery has come to regret.
Patricia Clarkson plays Camille’s mother, the town matriarch Adora Crellin, who seems to have wandered off the pages of an unproduced Tennessee Williams play. Adora is wealthy and powerful and manipulative and intimidating and kind of awful, and Clarkson is simply great at every turn. (Beaming about the genuine ivory floors in her home, Adora looks back fondly on a time when nobody worried about trifling things like “endangered species.”)
Everyone from Adora’s disturbingly passive second husband (Henry Czerny) to Camille’s young half-sister Amma (Eliza Scanlen) to Chief Vickery lives to please Adora. Even the hard-drinking, tough-talking, independent-minded Camille alternates between telling off her mother and apologizing profusely for disappointing her yet again.
“Sharp Objects” often flashes back to Camille’s childhood and the death of Camille’s sister, among other shocking moments. (Let’s just say we understand why Camille raced the hell out of Wind Gap the first chance she got.)
Then we ricochet back to present day, with Camille and Amma forming a touching but strange bond; after all, Camille is in her mid-30s and Amma is barely into her teens, yet they start hanging out and even partying together. (Eliza Scanlen is stunningly good as Amma, who looks and behaves like an 18-year-old when she’s out on the town, and reverts to playing a perpetual adolescent, consumed with her elaborate dollhouse, when in her mother’s presence.)
We learn why Camille always wears long pants and sweaters, even on the hottest summer days. We learn dark secrets about a number of townsfolk. We begin to wonder if the chief, or maybe the father of one of the victims, or maybe the brother of a victim, or maybe THAT teacher or THAT relative of Camille’s, could be responsible for the murders.
There’s something … off about the town of Wind Gap, from the adult former football players and cheerleaders who still act like teenagers, to the wildly inappropriate content of the annual school play, to the celebration of “Calhoun Day,” with Chief Vickery and other locals dressing up as Confederate soldiers. It feels like the kind of town Rod Serling would have created for an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
The more time Camille spends in Wind Gap, the deeper she sinks into the morass of her past and the madness of the present. We want her to solve those murders, but not at the expense of failing to save herself.