It’s easy to see HBO as a sure thing. The premium cable network has created a brand out of quality programming. “It’s not TV, it’s HBO,” their slogan says. They’ve been instrumental in the resurgence of the miniseries. In so many ways, “Sharp Objects,” their latest project, seems like another HBO sure thing. Amy Adams becomes the latest movie star to move from the big screen to the small screen. It’s an adaptation of a Gillian Flynn novel directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, hot off of “Big Little Lies.” The show boasts an impressive pedigree, but only delivers on some of it.
St. Louis journalist Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) prefers to drown her sorrows with mini-bottles of Vodka rather than come into work. Her editor gives her the assignment to investigate a series of disappearances in her small hometown of Wind Gap. Camille holds contempt for her hometown, more specifically her disapproving socialite mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson). As she works with the town to solve these disappearances, Camille must come to terms with her own childhood traumas that have led to her alcoholism and self-harm tendencies.
Twitter buzz over Amy Adams’ performance has reached a fever pitch. Some have even called the Best Actress Emmy race for 2019 already over. It’s true, Amy Adams is incredibly strong in the leading role. She expertly conveys Camille’s surliness as an extension of her grief and sadness. Adams excels in silent scenes where we watch her observe behavior and put together pieces of this mystery. However, much of the performance is given in this hushed whisper to signify it’s a “serious” show. This is partly because the show spins its wheels showing us repeated emotional beats. However, Adams comes off more technically good rather than compelling or unpredictable. Still, she plays very well in conjunction with Sophia Lillis of “It” fame as her younger self. The two create a shared reaction to a childhood trauma that fuels the haunted DNA of the show.
Meanwhile, Patricia Clarkson decimates the role of Adora Crellin, Camille’s high society mother. Clarkson builds a unique character with every flick of a cocktail glass. Her gestures and movement capture a Midwestern hospitality that’s simultaneously warm and cold. She stands out in a supporting cast filled with strong character actors doing serviceable work. Chris Messina remains an engaging screen presence. However, as Kansas City detective Richard Willis, he’s given little more to do than look handsome, masculine and possibly threatening. Elizabeth Perkins promises a lot of fun as “Backwoods Barbie” Jackie but doesn’t get much screen time.
Following the massive success of “Big Little Lies,” it seems Jean-Marc Vallée has become HBO’s go-to director for female-led miniseries based on a book. Vallée keeps some of the same stylistic flourishes of the previous hit show. There are the frequent cuts between reality and fantasy, past and present. It’s moody and atmospheric, focusing on finding the pulse of the location. This sense of place is perhaps the strongest element of “Sharp Objects.” Wind Gap looks like a perfect slice of Americana. Yet, its sheen barely conceals the paranoia and horror the town feels about the recent abductions.
While Vallée understands the tone of the town, he becomes less adept at highlighting the people within it. Patricia Clarkson is introduced in a poorly lit scene where you can barely make out who she is. Her big scene obstructs her face in darkness completely. Vallée seems more interested in making everything look “dark,” rather than let his fantastic actors take us through their emotional journey.
“Sharp Objects” falls short of the water cooler sensation “Big Little Lies.” It also isn’t as subversive or compelling as “Gone Girl,” another Gillian Flynn book adaptation. However, there is a lot that is still captivating. Mostly this boils down to Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson. HBO has carved out a really strong niche for themselves on female-led miniseries mysteries. “Sharp Objects” is a welcome addition to the sub-genre. However, they would be wise to vary up the director and voices that tell these stories. Jean-Marc Vallée has strong suits, but he overuses his tropes to the point of self-parody here. With Andrea Arnold directing season two of “Big Little Lies,” there’s hope HBO will pursue new, interesting directorial voices in the future (perhaps even more female directors).