In 1999, when The Sixth Sense came out, I was the only one in my group at the movies that evening who figured out the surprise ending from the moment Haley Joel Osment’s character uttered the famous line, “I see dead people.” I bring this up because when I watched the premiere episode of Sharp Objects on HBO, I made a quip about a minor scene that could be viewed as transitional as holding the key to the show’s mystery. I was joking at the time, but that quip turned out to be true in the end — and that disappointed me. Well, the entire series of Sharp Objects was a disappointment. Riding on the success of the book and film adaptation of Gone Girl, author Gillian Flynn’s debut novel was adapted into an eight-part series for HBO. However, instead of a taut thriller about a mediocre journalist — who’s borderline alcoholic with severe psychological baggage — on assignment investigating the murder of a young girl (and another who is missing) in her childhood home, we get eight glacially paced episodes where the narrative barely budges week after week. Indeed, when the big reveal came at the end of the series, it felt more like a relief rather than a “Holy Sh*t!” moment.
Sharp Objects was created by Marti Noxon (writer and executive producer of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV series) and directed by Jean-Marc Vallee — whose success with HBO’s Big Little Lies made him a good choice to handle this twisted drama. However, even with a powerhouse production team and a powerhouse cast — led by Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson — the series was mired with bloat that used the atmospherics of sound, stark colors, dreamy flashbacks, and sweat to mask the fact that most of Sharp Objects is filler. However, buried in all that bloat is a story that could have been compelling as a two-episode limited series.
The story is moved forward by the small town murder in Wind Gap, Missouri, where the corpse of a young girl is found with all of her teeth missing. What kind of sick f*ck does something like that? A town drifter looking for a quick thrill? A local serial killer? Camille tries to extract information from the town locals, the police, and even an out of town detective working the case, but she runs up against roadblocks in her quest to find out what happened. While doing her gumshoe work (and getting drunk), the missing girl is found dead in an ally. She too has had all of her teeth extracted, and so it’s clear that these murders are connected since the bodies have been killed and mutilated in the same way.
However, if this was the story of the murders of a couple of teenage girls and an alcoholic journalist reporting the story, it would be a rather boilerplate narrative. Laced into the tapestry of Sharp Objects are Camille’s troubled relationship with her family (mostly her mother, Adora) and her recovery as a cutter who etches words into her body with razor blades, pins, and other, well, sharp objects. Throughout the series, Camille is haunted by the flashbacks of her sister who died when she was a teenager, suffers psychological trauma because her mother doesn’t love her, and is troubled by her half-sister’s (Amma) nymph-child behavior. In short, the characters present themselves as complicated white people with money whose secrets are made all the more mysterious because of their southern roots. But in reality, they are just psychotic. Now, this is all fine material to create an interesting story since no author worth her or his salt wants boring characters to dominate their work. And while Flynn has been accused of misogyny in her novels, she hasn’t been accused of creating borning lead characters. However, that’s exactly what has happened in this adaptation of her novel. Characters who shouldn’t be boring or uninteresting, are hampered by a long-winded arc that takes way too much time to get to the point. Along the way, viewers have to suffer through episode after episode of depressing scenes that do very little to move the plot forward. As I wrote at the outset, when the big reveal comes at the end — and I mean literally at the end and during the credit roll — it was both laughable and somewhat disturbing. It felt very B-movie in the way it was wrapped in a rush. Certainly, that was by design so viewers could chew over the previous seven hours and 58 minutes of story and piece together the clues that led to the conclusion — much like The Sixth Sense. However, it would have been a much more satisfying experience if we didn’t have so many interminable hours to parse.