Sharp Objects Episode 1 Review: Vanish

HBO’s atmospheric small town murder mystery gets off to a strong start.

This Sharp Objects review contains spoilers

Sharp Objects Episode 1

“Life is pressure. Grow up,” says newspaper editor Frank Curry (played by Miguel Sandoval) to his protégé reporter. Except this reporter can’t grow up. She’s trapped in her childhood memories. And there are events, long in the past, that are not going to allow themselves to be forgotten. 

For the past is inescapable in this first episode of Sharp Objects. Camille Preaker has just been sent by her editor back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to write an article about the disappearance of local teenager Natalie Keene – is this related to the earlier murder of another teenager? Is there a serial killer on the loose? How dangerous is it to grow up in Wind Gap, anyway? Flashbacks to Camille’s own teenage years give us visions of a town pretty much unchanged, and strangely empty. Camille and her sister roam free, roller-skating, hiding, sneaking into places that contain things children shouldn’t see. Is it idyllic, or sinister?

A plot that moves freely between the past and present can be confusing, but there are a number of elements that come together to make this work so well in Sharp Objects. Firstly, the way the two elements are intercut is really interesting but also strangely seamless; director Jean-Marc Valléedoes a brilliant job of moving between Camille’s childhood and adulthood, providing flashes of the past as Camille remembers moments, inconsequential close ups at times, of her with her sister. It feels like an accurate depiction of how memory works. One thought leads to another, and suddenly we’re back in the past, intensely reliving it. Choosing to splice memories into the present in this form really places us firmly inside Camille’s head. This is absolutely her story.

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Then there’s the writing. There’s not a false note in any of the conversations within this episode. A naturalistic flow, to mirror the memories, moves us from one encounter to the next as Camille returns to Wind Gap. She makes small talk with some people, and tries to get the information she needs to write her article from others, but at all times these interactions feel like an effort for Camille – it’s a mask she struggles to keep in place with the help of alcohol. The writing team is led Marti Noxon and Gillian Flynn, the author of the novel upon which the series is based; it’s no surprise, perhaps, that the script is so strong.

Finally, there are the performances. This looks like it’s going to be a deep, dark journey into Camille’s life, so the people playing her need to be up to the job. Teenage Camille is played by Sophia Lillis, and she has an open, naive quality, as if she is trying to make sense of all she sees. Adult Camille is Amy Adams, and that openness has become distrust and weariness, but undoubtedly you think you’re looking at the same person when you watch either actor. It’s an impressive achievement by both of them. 

Adams in particular is amazing. Older Camille isn’t a character you can instantly love – she’s far too complex for that – but this isn’t a performance that wants your sympathy above everything else. It’s aiming for the much bigger prize of capturing your understanding of how a person can end up both shaped and paralysed, bearing literal scars, by her past. 

So this first episode devotes a lot of time to establishing Camille and the town within a past/present structure, but it also manages the trick of getting the mystery element of the plot up and running, encouraging us to be actively interested in what’s to follow. A lot of this rests on the interviews Camille conducts with the townsfolk, from the father of the murdered girl to the new police detective in town. 

Little details are given out that start to make these crimes real to us, but it’s the discovery of Natalie’s body towards the end of this episode that packs a huge punch. The way the body is found, in an alley only a few feet from the main town square, propped up in an open window, is both moving and horrifying; Camille takes in the grazes on the girl’s knees, the distress of the woman that found her. 

So we now know we’re dealing with another murder, and possibly a serial killer – but before the episode ends we find ourselves back at Camille’s childhood home, with her mother Adora and her much younger sister, Amma. The profoundly upsetting memory of a funeral for the sister that died during Camille’s teenage years works so well too. But even that doesn’t seem to quite explain Camille’s family now- and this is the only aspect of Sharp Objects that causes me some misgivings early on. 

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Adora (played by Patricia Clarkson) is an interesting character. Obsessed with public image and decorum, brittle and anxious, she floats around her old house in little fluffy slippers, plucking out her own eyelashes whenever she feels threatened. But does she stray into melodrama? 

Adora could have walked out of a Tennessee Williams’ play, and I’m not sure she fits with the more naturalistic tone that Camille’s character strikes. Add in a large dolls’ house that sits incongruously in the living room (are all screen dolls’ houses innately creepy?) and there are some elements that feel as if they could become histrionic.

But we’re in early days of this investigation, and right now I have to admit that I’m intrigued as to how these more overblown elements will jostle against the thriller and psychological investigation that Sharp Objects is threatening to be. That, along with Amy Adams giving a performance that feels truthful and painful, will definitely keep me watching. 

It’s not just about what happened to the local girls in the ongoing murder enquiries; it’s also about what happened to Camille that made her the person she is. Can we simply grow up, and move on? Not in Wind Gap, we can’t. Sharp Objects is telling us that very clearly, right from the start. The past is definitely not going to let us grow up in peace.