By appearances alone, HBO’s “Sharp Objects” looks to be a likely choice for the show of the summer. The miniseries (premiering Sunday) has it all — the right source material (Gillian Flynn’s 2006 psychological crime novel), the right director (Jean-Marc Vallée of “Wild” and “Big Little Lies,” with his fluid, trademark style of meshing memory and momentum), and most of all, the right star, Amy Adams, who is always at home portraying damaged-goods characters who live in the muggy melancholia of the American elsewhere.
Missouri, specifically, where Adams plays Camille Preaker, a St. Louis newspaper reporter with a heavy drinking problem, whose sympathetic but demanding editor, Curry (Miguel Sandoval), assigns her to travel back to her to hometown of Wind Gap (pop. 2,000), way down in the state’s rural boot heel, to look into the murder of a young local girl and the recent disappearance of another. Does Wind Gap have a serial killer? Camille, who hasn’t visited home in years, protests the pitch; even if the story’s good, it won’t win her a Pulitzer.
“You’re not winning a Pulitzer because you’re only half-good at writing,” Curry tells her. (Yeowch!) “This could change that. And I’m your boss.”
In addition to bringing as many travel-size bottles of vodka as she can fit in a shoulder bag, Camille arrives in Wind Gap with an almost insurmountable amount of emotional baggage, revealed fleetingly to viewers in Vallée’s dribs-’n’-drabs technique — a hint here, a hint there. The sight of girls lazily roller-skating up and down the streets of Wind Gap reminds Camille of her little sister, who, a viewer will soon gather, died of an illness 25 years ago.
After telling the generally unhelpful police chief (Matt Craven) of her journalistic intentions to write “a thinkpiece” about how a murder affects a small town, Camille finds the coldest shoulder comes from her mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson), who, as heir to the town’s hog-processing plant, is the richest woman around and has the most to lose from unseemly media attention. Adora lives in an exaggerated state of Southern gentility in the family mansion with Camille’s stepfather, Alan (Henry Czerny), an audiophile who tunes out the household drama, and Camille’s 15-year-old half sister, Amma (Eliza Scanlen).
While the town searches the fields and woods for its latest missing girl, Camille meets Richard Willis (Chris Messina), a Kansas City detective brought in to help with the case. Though reluctant to share information with a reporter, Richard relates to Camille’s alienation from the town and its culture — the contrast between its gossip and its coverups, for example, or the community’s backward enthusiasm for its annual Confederacy pageant. His outsider status and her pariah status ought to combine to shed new light on the case; instead, their relationship makes things murkier.
Viewers are soon equally befuddled and in need of a guide. With Camille’s blackout drinking binges and Vallée’s artistic disdain for a linear edit, the hallucinatory obfuscation quickly becomes a bit much. “Sharp Objects” is a difficult, languid endeavor, and it’s easy to imagine viewers ghosting after two or three episodes. As instantly addictive as it can be — and as fine and sweat-beaded as some of the performances are — it’s maddeningly slow when it comes to plot, and, like a lot of limited series, it’s probably one or two episodes too long. The writing is meticulously mapped out by creator Marti Noxon (“UnReal”) with help from author Flynn herself, yet the material is stretched past its ability to absorb.
There’s also a surprisingly callous disregard for the very subjects that brought us the concept of trigger warnings: Before landing on a probable killer in its latter episodes (HBO made seven of eight parts available for this review), “Sharp Objects” is a constant collage of rapey, sexual-abusive imagery and flashbacks. Camille’s half sister Amma follows the general path of television’s irrepressibly provocative trouble-teens, getting into hard drugs and dangerous sex when nobody’s watching, then sneaking home to play the obedient princess. Camille, meanwhile, has largely suppressed her own feelings and memories of her sexually rambunctious adolescence, but she has also spelled out her deepest hurts by carving and cutting several years’ worth of relevant words all over her body.
Again with the cutting in a story about a troubled woman. If this form of self-abuse is such a problem among teens and young adults, why is it presented as romantically inevitable and untreatable (and even as an acceptable, tattoolike form of acting out) in popular literature, films and TV? Rather than give the disorder a thoughtful look, “Sharp Objects” plays it up as a lurid pathway to clues. The fixation on Camille’s scars is a melodramatic misstep.
Aside from some slightly hammy subplots and the predictable snack of a red herring or two, those are my criticisms. In the same breath, I can’t deny that I charged through seven hours of “Sharp Objects” with an obsessive appreciation for the overall effort, propelled mostly by Adams’s effectively morose and complicated portrayal of Camille.
In one of her many calls to update her boss on her reporting, Camille says she’s going to need more than the 800 words he’s assigned her to finish the story. I heartily agree, even when this tale has pushed its limits.
Sharp Objects (one hour) first of eight parts premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.