HBO’s ‘Sharp Objects’ Reveals Dark Family Secrets Amid Hunt for Killer

Camille Preaker is one of those personalities we sometimes come across in life. Scarred by experiences and forever haunted by past events. She is at the center of “Sharp Objects,” the new HBO miniseries adapted from the novel by Gillian Flynn. Flynn attained renown for her novel “Gone Girl” and the 2014 movie adaptation by David Fincher. Here the story again revolves around a mystery, but one which works as a road into a sullen, small town world where few secrets remain hidden and bad memories have a way of viciously bubbling up. Spread out into eight episodes, it gradually absorbs the viewer, to the point where by the end the main character becomes as real as a documentary subject.

Amy Adams plays Camille, a St. Louis journalist who is sent by her editor, essentially against her will, back home to Wind Gap, Missouri, a very rural farming town, where a young girl goes missing. A year earlier another girl of about the same age also disappeared, only to be found dead with all her teeth pulled out. The town is now on edge, with gossip naming multiple suspects and useless curfews being imposed on the local, bored girls. For Camille coming back means facing unsettling memories and her hellish mother, an old Southern Dame named Adora (Patricia Clarkson), who owns a lucrative pig slaughtering business. Camille has already lost one sister under strange circumstances, but the shadow that hangs over her has more to do with her reputation as a wild, promiscuous teenager back in days of self-discovery. Her cure for the demons is alcohol, which she drinks whenever possible, and her other form of coping is cutting. Her body already features numerous carved words and phrases. Camille’s half-sister, Amma (Eliza Scanlen), idolizes her older sister’s reputation, especially since she is now being absorbed by the town’s aimless youth culture. But amid the swirl of memories, hallucinations and deep, screaming resentments, Camille still has a story to write. She soon crosses paths with a Kansas City detective sent to investigate the case, Richard Willis (Chris Messina). The two start getting close, even as the search for the truth grows darker and more painful.

“Sharp Objects” is a rare TV adaptation that could itself be approached like the literature it is culled from. It proceeds like a slow burner, carefully building a sense of disorientation and claustrophobia in the early episodes, before descending into a southern gothic fever dream near the end. Director Jean-Marc Vallée, renowned for films like “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild,” and on TV for HBO’s own “Big Little Lies,” works with the various writers (including Flynn) to create an enclosed world we become familiar with. Wind Gap becomes a place of idle dread, with dark, empty streets at night through which the town’s teens drive around and kill boredom by drinking, popping pills and exploring their hormonal urges. For Camille every corner contains a biting memory, every teen is a reflection of her own high school days. Vallée allows the camera to float behind roller-skating girls, as if they were eerie specters, and never uses flashbacks to tell Camille’s story, but instead fluid flashes of memories. We begin to see Wind Gap through the very personality of Camille herself. She is functioning but drunk, intelligent but overwhelmed by the place and its toxic atmosphere. The adults seem to have never grown out of their old high school cliques, as the women entertain themselves with vicious gossip, bitter observations about Camille hidden under fake manners. Even the pretensions at southern pride over the town’s Civil War history ring hollow. This adds a particular creepiness to a Confederate play Amma has to perform in. Set amid a hot summer, the sense of humidity adds to the series’ tone of a personality under pressure.

The murder in “Sharp Objects” serves as a tool for a broader canvas. Hunting the killer takes a back seat to the twisted personal stories of the town. The story is really about the people and what makes them tick. Within Camille’s lavish childhood home, which looks like a place taken from a Faulkner novel or Tennessee Williams play, Adora lords over her weakling husband, Alan (Henry Czerny), who blocks out the world by listening to music on his high-tech record player. They are almost oblivious to Amma taking drugs upstairs with her friends, daring Camille to join in or keep quiet. The town sheriff, Vickery (Matt Craven), is an old cynic who of course suspects the murders could have been committed by a Mexican migrant. Is he sleeping with Adora? The script deliciously keeps it subtle and for us to ponder. The teenagers are brilliantly written with a naked honesty about how bored, entitled kids behave in a bare environment. Madison Davenport is particularly good as Meredith, the cheerleader girlfriend of John (Taylor John Smith), the brother of one of the missing girls, who only cares about how popularity gives you real worth in this town. Eliza Scanlen is like the little sister from hell, boozing, flirting and teasing the local men without the slightest idea of how dangerous it can be. There is also dark humor in how the local women gather for “pity parties” where they watch romantic comedies and then weep over their marital woes.

But the most impressive performance is Amy Adams as Camille. “Sharp Objects” is one of the most striking recent TV portraits of a haunted character. Camille is so human in her flaws. Her scars, her drinking and the way she eventually gets close to Richard, are never part of some cheap, melodramatic narrative. Her hidden past has nothing to do with some over the top trauma. She just never got over what happened to her as a kid in an environment where her mother was a loveless virago, and she found feeling and contact by giving herself to many of the local boys. There is real pain in Adams’s eyes when she recounts an event, or almost tauntingly tells Richard about her exploits. In one scene a former football player, now grown, actually apologizes to Camille with genuine shame for taking advantage of her. Camille can only sneer. When she fights with Adora there is the rubber band tension of feeling entrapped by someone who will simply never listen. There is a sex scene involving Camille allowing someone to touch her scars that is never sensual, but full of honest pain. Her editor, Frank (Miguel Sandoval), is wonderfully written as a boss who actually cares, but is clueless himself in how to deal with someone in Camille’s emotional state. Led Zeppelin becomes her soundtrack in the car, the band’s pounding rhythms and eerie riffs giving some cohesion to her boiling emotions.

Yet this remains a detective story and as the threads tie together it becomes quite riveting. This is not a chase show, and for most of its chapters there is never a single bullet fired. What it does is bring us into this town, place us among these people and reveal how a place can shape a person. When the final revelation is made, it is a tragic, but fitting curtain call. “Sharp Objects” mixes murder and family into a gothic fable about the deep scars our cradles can leave behind.

Sharp Objects” premieres July 8 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.