Based on the Gillian Flynn novel of the same name, Sharp Objects follows journalist Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) as she travels to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to write a story about a possible serial killer targeting young girls. More than a simple small-town murder mystery, “Vanish” proves Sharp Objects is well on its way to becoming an addictive psychological thriller, exploring memory, trauma, and self-harm, with complex women at its center. It’s mysterious and melancholic, and as haunting as it is tantalizing.
At first glance, Sharp Objects is highly reminiscent of another Jean Marc Vallée-directed HBO series. The distinct visual style on display here – the pairing of eclectic yet cohesive musical selections, with elongated dialogue-free sequences, and a picturesque framing of everything from scenery to facial expressions, allowing the resultant mood to speak for itself – smacks pretty hard of Big Little Lies. But while Vallée utilizes imagery in much the same way for both shows, that’s where the similarities end. Where Big Little Lies ultimately felt hollow under its aesthetically pleasing veneer, Sharp Objects has a clear and immediate sense of depth and intricacy. Vallée’s visual language is used far more purposefully and to much better effect here.
One scene in particular, one absent of dialogue, sets the stage beautifully for the kind of tone we should expect moving forward. During one of her many flashbacks/memories, Camille recalls a time she stumbled upon a cabin in the woods. Hanging from the ceiling and laying on shelves were strips of drying, curing flesh – most likely pig meat, but maybe not. Photos depicting hardcore and BDSM-style pornography covered the cabin’s walls, and young Camille couldn’t help but stare. This cabin was both revolting and seductive, disturbing yet alluring: a microcosm of Sharp Objects itself.
Everything about this show’s world, from its tone, to its characters, and the setting, is almost instantly realized in “Vanish.” There’s a very lived-in quality, one that makes it easy for viewers to settle in for the ride ahead. Though it’s become a little tired to label a narrative’s city or town as “just another character” the description couldn’t be more apt here. The attention to detail paid in establishing Wind Gap was vital, too, as it’s the kind of place that doesn’t come with the same shorthand as the more familiar, big city settings like New York or L.A.
Wind Gap feels like a place lost to time, though there’s a chance we’re only seeing it that way via Camille’s shaded lens. The town has a stark divide in its populace; you’re either trash or old money, as Camille tells her editor. She further explains how the town’s economy revolves mainly around the slaughterhouse industry, and once the story arrives in Wind Gap that fact becomes almost tangible. You can practically feel the haze in the air of this Missouri town, smell the farmland mixing sourly with high temperatures. When Camille meets with the local police chief, there’s a suffocating aroma of cigarettes, hogs, and heat. It’s smothering; precisely how Camille feels about being back home.
“Vanish” is full of this engrossingly tactile visual language; there are moments when you can just taste how soaked in vodka Camille is. There’s a marked difference between the humidity in the outside air that leaves nearly everyone drenched in sweat stains, and the chilly atmosphere flooding within the walls of Adora’s opulent, dollhouse-like home. The color palette balances muted and crisp tones, infusing each and every shot with such a rich texture. The kind of relationship this visual style is facilitating between audience and narrative is not only useful for ensuring we’re intrigued, and maybe even obsessed, with its mysteries, but it will surely go a long way in garnering our sympathy for and investment in its outcomes. The tangible nature of it all makes it feel as though we’re part of this story.
This immersive effect is at its strongest through Vallée’s portrayal of memory. Camille’s recollections of the past don’t play out like typical flashbacks; they may come from a time before but they don’t feel rooted there. Instead, there’s a blending of past and present, where young Camille (the perfectly cast Sophia Lillis) often crosses paths with Adams’ version. It’s a device that explicitly states just how inescapable these memories are for Camille, how deeply they’ve impacted her entire life, and one that allows us to share in these disjointed yet mesmerizing reveries. Through this depiction of a lack of barriers between memory and reality, Vallée has sewn together the past and present to create a patchwork laced with ambiguity.
Of course, Amy Adams is an essential piece of the puzzle in making Camille’s collage-like psyche so enthralling. The five-time Oscar nominee is truly doing some career-best work here. Adams gives such a precise life to the character, portrays her with such a matter-of-fact quality in regards to her damage, making it seem as though she’s inhabited the role for several seasons worth of TV, not just one episode. Camille feels like an old friend, one who’s grown distant but who you nevertheless still care for. It’s easy to root for her, to will her to put down the bottle and stop letting her self-loathing get in the way of being a truly great reporter.
It’s hard to imagine what the show might look like without Adams’ expert ability to carry the narrative – she’s in nearly every scene, and even when she’s not her character is still being referenced. Like Camille’s memories, Adams is omnipresent in “Vanish.” So much so, the secondary players almost don’t matter. However, both Patricia Clarkson, as Camille’s mother Adora, and relative newcomer Eliza Scanlen, as Camille’s half-sister Amma, found just enough space to make their mark, too. Clarkson’s Adora is brittle yet grating, and deeply unsettling to watch whenever she starts anxiously plucking at her eyelashes. Despite the mystery still very much surrounding Amma, Scanlen has thus far lent her just the right mixture of childish innocence and a maturity to understand how her mother operates.
At this point, the very mystery Camille has been sent home to report on – one missing girl and one murdered girl – feels tertiary, and that’s more than okay. There’s enough going on in Camille’s head to fill eight episodes, so there’s no urgency for the other aspects of the show to unfold. Right now, the clouds of uncertainty hanging over Wind Gap are far more powerful than any possible answer anyways. Nevertheless, Sharp Objects is practically bursting with questions just begging to be dissected. So, just for fun, let’s discuss a few of the most pressing questions from “Vanish.”
What’s the deal with Camille’s cracked iPhone?
Camille has two phones, one in good condition, and one not so much. What’s so important about the playlist on the cracked phone that she keeps it around? Maybe the device will have a deeper meaning when given further context; it could be a memento Camille keeps. Or, this could just be a bit of character building. Camille is also driving a fairly old Volvo, and her memories of the past were clearly haunting her before ever returning home, so it’s possible we’re simply being told how stunted Camille’s development is, how she hangs onto the past for longer than appropriate.
Who is the girl Camille keeps seeing?
I’m not referring to Marian, Camille’s late sister whom we meet in flashbacks/memories, but the girl whose face we see in the Wind Gap motel’s washroom mirror. It’s a quick cut that comes after something about the toilet triggers a memory for Camille: a janitor’s cart being pushed. She responds to the recollection with another gulp of vodka and when she looks up, the mystery girl is staring back at her. There’s another brief scene in which Camille approaches a girl’s body lying on her bed but we never see the person’s face, so it’s difficult to tell if this is yet another mystery girl, or the same one. For now, I’m betting this has something to do with why Camille needs to get back on her feet, which leads to the next question…
Why does Camille need to get back on her feet?
Frank Curry, Camille’s editor, suggests a trip back home could not only lead to a great story for her, it could be exactly what she needs to get herself back on track. This implies Camille has gone through something traumatic more recently than the loss Marian. As mentioned above, this could be connected to the other mystery girl in Camille’s memories. It’s also possible this has something to do with Camille’s obvious problem with alcohol. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if she’d had one too many airplane-sized vodka bottles and wound up in the hospital. If so, it clearly had no effect on her, but perhaps this is why she conceals her booze in water bottles; so she can pretend to be better.
What’s with the all appearing and disappearing text?
Several words made fleeting appearances during “Vanish.” Some of them, such as ASK, which was spelled out via thumbtacks on the wall of Camille’s cubicle, felt explicable; others, like the road sign that warned, “last exit to change your mind” infused scenes with a more surreal quality. Other text sightings include: BAD, scratched onto the desk in Camille’s apartment; DIRT, scrawled into the dust of Camille’s car’s trunk; WRONG, which flashed from her car’s stereo; and GIRL, found etched into a replica artwork in Amma’s dollhouse.
Certainly the most important word was the one seen on Camille’s arm: VANISH. As she stepped into a bath, it looked as though her entire body was carved with words, but vanish is the one that came into sharp focus. Bad, dirt, wrong, and vanish feel very much in line with Camille’s self-loathing behavior, and suggest she might simply be hallucinating these words as further acts of self-destruction. Perhaps they’re pieces of the show’s larger puzzle. If nothing else, it makes for a beautiful collision between visual language and the written word. A striking collaboration of Vallée’s style, Flynn’s source material, and showrunner Marti Noxon’s prose.