What is it about small towns and murder mysteries that work so well on television?
The moody setting in a town where everyone knows everyone else with an on-going police investigation (usually the bizarre kind) have been the main plot for must-watch series like Broadchurch, The Killing, True Detective and Dark.
However, what ultimately drives such a show are the characters in the said town. These are flawed individuals who are burdened and haunted by past events in their lives.
It is the examination of these townsfolk and how they react towards the present events that reel the audience in, as much as the solving of the crime itself.
HBO’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has all these ingredients, and more.
If Flynn’s name is familiar, that’s because her other novels – Gone Girl and Dark Places – have been adapted to the big screen.
Bringing the novel to life is a stellar cast which includes Oscar-nominee Amy Adams, Patricia Clarkson, Chris Messina and Eliza Scanlen.
Sharp Objects sees Adams playing Camille Preaker, a not-altogether reporter assigned to cover the murders of two preteen girls in the small town of Wind Gap, Missouri.
One of the reasons her editor picked her for the assignment is because Camille hails from Wind Gap – a place that holds good, bad and downright disturbing memories for her.
We learn, too, that she lost her sister when she was young – something neither she nor her mother (Clarkson) have gotten over. This tragedy has soured their relationship.
As Camille delves into the current murder case, her old issues start to resurface.
Now we know why Camille’s constant companions are alcohol, distorted memories and mood swings.
Adams manages to pour out her character’s pain and suppressed emotions with just a sad glance or troubled facial expression. The actress and Clarkson give fascinating interpretation to the troubled mother-daughter relationship – mama is still overbearing and Camille is still a rebel – making this more interesting than the murder case.
Not that the murders are anything to scoff at, especially when you learn the town has had more than a few unsolved murders over the years.
Are the old murders somehow connected to the current ones? What is the truth behind the death of Camille’s sister?
All these questions swirl around the show, while centring on Camille – a woman who finds relief from a painful life by carving words like “Sacred”, “Hurt”, “Bad” all over her body. She is a cutter, she says.
The series also has the masterful direction of Jean-Marc Vallee who is in charge of all eight episodes of Sharp Objects, a feat similar to the one he pulled off magnificently with last year’s Big Little Lies.
Although you get annoyed with the random flashbacks at first – because they reveal next to nothing, and are at times confusing – you will marvel at how these scenes are presented.
Vallee also uses music to reflect Camille’s emotions – you hear songs from Steve Miller Band, The Acid and Led Zeppelin.
This is where the series hits its first stumbling block with me: the soundtrack – to a non-music aficionado like me – sounds more pretentious than cool.
However, at the same time, I do wonder about the significance behind Camille’s broken iPod and her music taste.
Another major flaw: Vallee should’ve made Sharp Objects shorter than eight episodes.
The first episode especially moves at such a slow pace that it’s a mistake to watch the series when you are tired. (I fell asleep twice!)
Yes, lingering on so many scenes provides great aesthetic pleasure, but they’re pointless when viewers don’t have context or know the characters fully.
A bit of restraint would’ve been better, at least for the first episode.
The series also uses a number of small-town stereotypes to drive the narrative of the murder investigation – the rebellious teens, the outsider cop, the poor deemed as untrustworthy witnesses, while the words from the wealthy are pure gold.
Fortunately, the pace picks up speed from Episode Two onwards. As the flashbacks reveal more of Camille’s past, her present becomes more intriguing.
Sharp Objects does require your patience. But with capable actors, good writing and mysteries that keep you hooked, it is worth your while.
The series shows why murder mysteries, flawed characters and small towns are a good mix.
It’s because there are more than a few monsters lurking in a neighbourhood you think you know so well. And – what’s truly chilling is that – they’re probably someone you actually know.
Sharp Objects airs every Monday at 9am and 10pm on HBO (Astro Ch 411/HD Ch 431).