An Enjoyable Ride to an Awful Destination

Sharp Objects

Patricia Clarkson and Amy Adams in 'Sharp Objects'Adapted from Gillian Flynn’s debut novel, HBO’s Sharp Objects is a whole bunch of greatness that, finally, amounts to not much of anything. As an atmospheric mystery story, it’s elliptical right up to its closing moments and beyond, but it’s so pleased with how wholly it fooled the audience that it expects nobody will notice the obviousness of its cheats. As the portrait of a family, it crosses a line from awful parenting to horror, shifting in the process from heartbreaking to faintly ridiculous. And as a character study of Camille Preaker — the alcoholic, self-mutilating journalist played by Amy Adams with a compelling rawness — it ultimately just doesn’t care.

The greatness comes first and foremost from Adams and, as her character’s effortlessly evil mother Adora, Patricia Clarkson. Their performances are supported by gorgeously thorough filmmaking, with the cinematography creating an acute sense of place while the editing shows how whiffs of Camille’s past constantly leak into the present. Its mastery of casually nightmarish tone is beyond reproach, elusive and detached but with enough detail to feel convincing.

In the end, though, there’s no better description of Sharp Objects than Wind Gap, the name of the fictional Missouri town where it’s set. It’s a void as well as something lacking any substance.

Full disclosure: I stopped alertly watching long before the finale, for the simple reason that I couldn’t tell you much about any of the secondary characters. Camille’s family, the police chief, and the Kansas City detective were all clear enough to me, but I couldn’t remember which dude was the father of one of the teenage-girl victims and which was the brother of the other, and I couldn’t pick either of them out of a lineup. Even more troublesome was that I often couldn’t distinguish Camille’s half-sister Amma from her friends outside of the home.

But I stuck with it because I figured Sharp Objects was teaching its audience to basically get lost — to not worry about the details, because in the end it was going to be less about who killed two girls and more about the experience of being Camille. In other words, I expected the answers — if they came at all — to be fundamentally irrelevant to the real story.

And through seven of its eight episodes, that seemed to be the case. As Camille began to understand the depth of her mother’s wickedness, those recent murders looked more and more like MacGuffins.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong in my assumptions. (If Sharp Objects is still on your to-do list, let me only warn you that the Gone Girl faked her own murder.)

So literally the final seconds of the show solve the murders with some pearly whites, and two bits in the credits reinforce that reality. For me, they landed with both confusion and a shrug. What had I just seen? Did it matter? And did I care?

Having read a little and re-watched the relevant parts, I know the answer to the first question. But the show seems so disinterested in the middle question that, no, I don’t really care.

The problem, I’m confident, is that the makers of Sharp Objects fell in love with this hammer of an ending. They liked the idea of an apparent epilogue turning into a revelatory climax, and they loved the idea of final impressions becoming concrete reality during the credits, and then of things clicking into place for viewers in the aftermath or on second viewing. The defining features of this choice are its suddenness and its refusal to give the audience any time to let it sink in or question it.

In two fundamental ways, this was a gross miscalculation.

First, the ultimate resolution of the mystery and the fake resolution that precedes it only work under two conditions: that Adora is plausibly the culprit, and that no physical evidence would implicate Amma. Neither of those is met unless one believes that this was among the most incompetent and apathetic investigations in modern history.

Second, for much of the story the two murders feel nearly incidental compared to the attention paid to Camille and her damage. When they dovetail, Sharp Objects forgets that it’s primarily been a show about Camille.

On the first issue, the show is undoubtedly clever. It tells us in the blah blah blah of Camille’s newspaper article that our attention-loving matriarch confessed to the murders, and its fragmented style allows it leap from Adora’s arrest to her incarceration without arousing audience suspicion.

But any consideration raises a whole bunch of procedural/investigative problems that Sharp Objects doesn’t address — because it can’t. I won’t belabor the point, because I think most people can quickly come up with at least half-a-dozen major ways the final-episode developments don’t hold water. The two biggest are that Adora’s confession would be rejected because it’s utterly implausible in the absence of any forensic evidence to support it, and that there must be forensic evidence that points to Amma and her friends. The plot only makes sense if multiple girls kept their mouths shut about their crimes and if none of them left any hair, skin, fingerprint, or DNA traces behind that would cock up Adora’s story — even though they were amateur enough to leave a pair of seemingly bloody pliers in the kitchen. If all that were true, you’d still have to buy that there was a strong enough circumstantial case for Adora’s confession to be credible to Camille, the police, and the courts.

This would be easier to forgive if the show were truer to its nature, but it was clearly constructed around its cheap endgame — presenting its Adora feint as a resolution and hiding its role as a prelude to the abrupt reveal, characters and common sense and evidence be damned. The “shocking” conclusions — what Adora did long ago, and what Amma did more recently — are intended to be satisfying narrative endpoints. Sharp Objects assumes that we watched for the mystery, and it glibly neglects what happens after Camille knows.

I suspect that a substantial portion of flaws in HBO’s show came from the source material, although I haven’t read Flynn’s novel. But my understanding is that it spends at least a few pages bringing the story back to Camille and giving her a little grace and kindness. Even done with a few brushstrokes, that’s essential to the story being told.

Camille’s a journalist, and throughout Sharp Objects she’s trying to get to the truth — about the murders, but also about some unresolved bits from her past that won’t stay buried. Her myriad mental-health issues have their roots in her fucked-up family life. So when she figures out that her mother had poisoned her sister and half-sister, and eventually Camille herself, and seems to have murdered two other girls, well ... that should have been a pretty big deal. And when it turns out that Amma was the real culprit in the show’s central mystery, that should have been an even bigger deal, because Camille was trying to protect her half-sister and viewed her as somebody who could be saved.

But how does Camille react to any of this? In the simplistic world of Sharp Objects, she can, with one newspaper article, move on from her mother and stop cutting and cease drinking alcohol like water. Fine. Adora has always been a shitty mother, and some murder raps maybe wouldn’t darken Camille’s opinion of her. The finale offers this glimmer of hope that Camille and Amma could forge a reasonably healthy life post-Adora.

And then it pulls the rug out, and then it ends. As Amma’s deeds become clear to Camille, we see the horror on her face, the disbelief. Then three words from Amma.

Ending it there leaves the audience with nothing but sour nihilism. If it’s not important or relevant to show how Camille faces this grim reality, we can only assume that it will be the same way she’s always dealt with things — with alcohol and a sharp object. Nothing will change anything. The story’s three lead female characters were forged long ago and have no hope of being anything different from what they are. Nothing matters.

Although this calls into serious question why the story was told at all, it’s still a reasonable inference. But Camille has changed enough that it’s not a safe one. She has made some peace with her past, and has found some measure of happiness with Amma. She’s no longer numb, and as a result she’s incredibly vulnerable. The teeth in the miniature house would rip her world apart, and destroy her delusion that she had salvaged Amma’s innocence. Despite her journalistic training and instincts, she couldn’t see what was right in front of her, and another girl died as a result.

This should have been a crushing blow, particularly for somebody as self-destructive as Camille. So what happens next? I dunno, but Amma did it! Full stop.

While not directly addressing the issue I’m raising, I found this nugget both incisive and blind. In explaining why the show opted for the two credit sequences, series director Jean-Marc Vallée said:

“It didn’t make sense to cut to these flashes from Amma’s perspective, suddenly, as we’re with Camille. The whole series was designed through Camille’s perspective. ... It wasn’t good storytelling, you know?”

That’s great, and a thoughtfully rigorous way to dispense important information given the limitations of the show’s point-of-view. But precisely because the story is told from Camille’s perspective, we need more. It was no surprise to hear that her mother didn’t love her, but she’s given a gut punch in the final moments, and we literally never get a sense of how she handles it.

I admit that it would be tricky to give Camille a fitting denouement in a visual medium, and certainly another proper scene would have deflated things given the narrative choices Vallée and his collaborators made. But it seems to me that another sequence in the credits — perhaps between the two that were used — could have gone a long way. Figure out what you want Camille to be feeling and doing, make sure it’s true to the character and her state of mind and her journey, and trust Adams to do it without words.

But in the absence of even a nod to the impact of all this on a character who has been our eyes and ears for eight hours, we’re left with an oppressive portrait of rot and damage beyond redemption, a gothic mix of murder, booze, memory, sickness, family dysfunction, inertia, and self-harm. The whole enterprise is a heavy fog, full of impressive dread but without integrity.

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