This is a spoiler-free review of Sharp Object’s opening episode. Click here to see how to watch it online in the UK.
Disney’s Enchanted. Nocturnal Animals. American Hustle. The Fighter. Arrival. The Muppets. If you don’t think Amy Adams is one of the great, and most versatile, actors of modern cinema, you haven’t been paying attention for the last 19 years. With five Oscar nominations under her belt, it’s about time she had an Emmy nod to go with it, and Sharp Objects, HBO’s new psychological thriller, all but guarantees her inclusion on the awards shortlist. Adams is on sensational form in the TV drama, pouring herself into a complex character who’s busy pouring herself another drink.
We first meet Camille Preaker years before, as two young girls – Camille and her sister – roller skate down the road in their tiny American town. Except this isn’t a flashback: it’s a dream, setting up a story where everything feels internalised, each revelation steeped in personal trauma. Even the scenes lurch sharply from one to the next, often with a sudden noise jolting Camille awake, after she vanishes into an unseen haze of alcohol or emotional shock.
The latter is perhaps no surprise, given what she’s facing: now a journalist for a local newspaper, Camille is tasked with going back to her hometown to investigate the violent death of a young woman. Most detective stories would start by dropping crucial hints or explaining the backstories of the victim, but Sharp Objects’ opening episode is more interested in people over plot. Adapted from Gillian Flynn’s novel, showrunner Marti Noxon and her team of writers spend their intriguing, engrossing first hour simply setting the mood. And the mood is: wounded.
It soon becomes clear that the murder, which may or may not bear a similarity to a previous killing, is seeping into the town’s fabric, lingering in the bleak air, loitering on the slightly rundown street corners. Even the town’s name – Wind Gap – speaks to something lost, something absent. Camille blowing in inevitably ruffles some feathers (the local sheriff, played with a mix of pride and shame by Matt Craven, doesn’t want to divulge the few facts he has worked out), but this is less about racing to solve a crime and more about the way that Camille reacts to everyone she encounters. She’s there to find out information, but she’s awkward at doing so, partly because she’s not a cop, partly because she’s too busy drinking, and partly because she guiltily knows all these people, or they know her – and the pain this tiny community is going through, from mourning brothers to gossiping search parties, is stiflingly tangible.
Chris Messina’s out-of-town detective, brought in to turn the manhunt’s lack of success around, sticks out like a sore thumb – and not just because he’s an attractive figure with an eye for flirting. But it’s hard to have eyes for anyone but the magnetic Adams, who sinks her teeth into a tragic figure covering up her own closet of skeletons. Camille’s homecoming should be an affectionate one, but the introduction of her mother – Adora (Patricia Clarkson) – only escalates the drama’s ominous tone, as the enigmatic matriarch moves between the pristine detachment of a housewife welcoming a stranger and the insidious overbearing nature of a mother with a dark streak.
After an initial burst of innocent sunshine, director Jean-Marc Vallée dives his camera into murkier territory, and Adams’ Camille follows suit, providing a striking, sad contrast to that once-happy, wide-eyed girl. Now a resilient adult, she sports a sharp, sarcastic wit, but hard-boiled gumshoe she ain’t: she’s all blurred edges and scuffed car keys.
Miguel Sandoval’s apparently compassionate editor, who monitors her assignment, seems to suspect that Camille’s pilgrimage will be more voyage of self-discovery than headline-grabbing expose, and the extent of his knowledge of what once happened in Wind Gap is just one of many teasing plot threads left dangling – another comes courtesy of Camille’s half-sister, Amma (Eliza Scanlen), whose two-faced friendliness promises a trio of flawed female characters scarred in some way, whether by grief, resentment at Camille for leaving town in the first place, or something of a more physical nature, like the presumably self-etched tattoos that we glimpse on Camille’s arm. This is a world of open wounds and remembered injuries, where – literally, in the case of one dream – the past can pointedly harm the present. Even with seven episodes to go, it’s enough to leave you excited about the prospect of Adams starring in another series in the future.