Sharp Objects is based on the novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn, known for her dark and tenacious stories about women. Through the show’s nuanced family drama, commentary on small town life and perspective of its main character, it succeeds in creating not only a compelling look at the shattered mind and spirit of a town struck by unthinkable murders, but the shattered body and soul of the woman who takes us through it, reliving every piece of her childhood trauma as the chapters unravel.
Camille Preaker, played by the adaptable Amy Adams, is a journalist assigned to report on a homicide which took place in her home town of Windgap. Before knowing anything about the place, it’s easy to see this isn’t the type of homecoming one might look forward to. Camille is an obvious alcoholic and packs multiple bottles of travel-sized vodka with her, and her reluctance to leave can be felt, but she doesn’t put up too much of a fight. She looks tired and drained before the story has even begun. Not so much as a fiery reluctance to go back as a sigh and dragging of the feet. Camille is also a recovering self-harmer, to an extreme degree. Her entire body, bar a circle of skin on her back which is out of reach, is marked by words. Intrusive thoughts that needed to be written and externalised for her to be free of them, except she never will be. These words are what have been hammered into her head since she was a little girl, and in a town like Windgap, labels stick. Much of Sharp Objects is about perceived and manufactured perfection, and the infliction upon ourselves and others that happens behind closed doors away from the façade. Just as Camille hides her scars under covering black clothing—even with the attacking heat—the town has much more under its surface than it first seems. And when she arrives, she is greeted by the first of many horrors: another little girl has been killed.
Sharp Objects is masterfully edited. Shots linger when you wish they wouldn’t, cut when you think you might have spotted something in the back of the frame and act as an intrusion of the psyche. Locking into any potentially dangerous items scattered in moments of anxiety, letting us into Camille’s head and describing to us visually where it wanders and how in every room there’s something that can be used to self-destruct. Obscured words are etched into walls, tables and cars: dirt, fornicate, sacred. Never random, always relative to something seemingly unseen. The layers of things we ignore or pan away from are just as important as the things spelled out in front of us. It’s in things like the volume number of a stereo having to have three consecutive digits, a thirteen-year-old speaking in a way thirteen year olds never should, and a fragile woman pulling her eyelashes out one by one that the shiny veneer of the town is dirtied permanently. The grossness begins to seep through, and the exterior everyone is working so hard to perfect cannot be smoothed again; the scars will always be there. So will Camille’s.
“Your health is not a date you cancel, Camille; the body collects.”
As Camille drives around playing music that magnifies the tones of the show, the town looks saturated and peaceful. But as soon as we step out of the car, the sun becomes oppressive, the first sign of the town’s atmosphere. A hot bubble where everyone is sweating and the stickiness is relentless. The supposed peacefulness that might attract is actually more of an isolation, both in location and community. The people of Windgap are about their niceties, which Camille doesn’t buy into. She has spent too much time fighting to get out to appreciate the mindset of the nosy residents. All of whom have an opinion about who did it—about who amongst them is a “baby-killer”. The thing about Camille as a journalist is that she’s not a particularly good one. Even her boss, probably the only positive influence in her life, makes jokes about how she’s not going to be winning any prizes for her writing. As with a lot of people who struggle with severe mental health issues, everything else is just background noise, and the effort is better served elsewhere.
Tragedy where it doesn’t usually strike will be the talk of the town until there’s no words left unsaid about the events. The town has a taste for absurdity. With traditions of gang rape, underage sex and alcohol abuse, gossip is never in short supply. These things can all be seen as part of Camille’s world view. People are to an extent a product of their environment, and not everything can be unlearned. So much of what we see is what we project. Through some deplorable dialogue, we know Camille isn’t exactly Miss Morality. Maybe due to the crimes committed against her, ones she isn’t ready to think of as crimes yet. The town is bursting at the seams with tension, fear and anger. But throughout book and series it’s a wonder if half of them really care. Camille is in an incredibly toxic environment, one that is degenerating into something even more dangerous for her personally.
When Camille returns to her mother’s house in episode one, it’s clear that murder isn’t the only thing making her childhood home a hostile environment. Her cold and unloving mother Adora, in an unnerving portrayal by Patricia Clarkson, exudes a false sense of security. A warmth so unbelievable it made my skin crawl. Camille also meets her half-sister, Amma. Perhaps the only person in this tale who matches the troubling aura of Adora. Her benign and concerningly unaffected step-father Alan completes the household. I don’t think you’d be wrong to say the beginning letter of each of their names—which are ‘A’, ‘A’ and ‘A’—is the first subconscious battle line drawn against Camille, who cannot escape her imposition as an outsider.
Worrying flashbacks of Camille’s youth weave through the show in every episode—now involving a dying sister who was victim to a mysterious ailment, an introduction to sex that left her with a deeply strange relationship with it, and a mother who focused all her attention on her other child. The show has a talent for connecting two different moments in space and time and tying them together with some sort of connotation. Sometimes the things that shape us come in the form of huge events never to be forgotten, but sometimes it’s in the little things. The flashes that you can’t understand why you remember, and why they continue to burrow in the back of your brain. The briskness of fear, shock or disgust—over in an instant and never worth talking about but somehow just as affecting on the mind—seeping into the spaces these large life-changing events are meant to occupy. Maybe you walked past someone on the street as a child, and they scared you for reasons you don’t know, maybe the man who sold an ice cream to you on that hot summer day had a strange look in his eye, maybe you saw something you wished you hadn’t. And so it was buried in the brain’s backyard amongst the other small unexplainable terrors.
Although warning sirens are firing consistently throughout the series, episode six is a special home for the first signs of real danger and consequence. It focuses on Camille and Amma’s growing relationship; spurred on by ecstasy and alcohol, things soon take a turn. For me, Camille’s fascination towards Amma has always stemmed from the fact she craves an intimacy with her, a close relationship she is in desperate need of. Despite despising many thing about Amma’s behaviour, Camille can’t push her away. In this episode it’s further reflected as the sisters leave a house party and end up huddled together outside; we reverse to a shot of some sort of insect flying towards a bright white street lamp.
Camille sees in Amma the fun and youth she lacks. In a way, Amma represents her deepest inner fears (a product of small town mentality and Adora) but also what she craves as a lonely adult. The episode is also one of rumination and foreshadowing. Camille and Amma’s relationship is cracked open to new dimensions. Amma is more inappropriate than ever, and Camille more than ever lets her be. Perhaps because she knows what familial rejection feels like, perhaps because the way Amma clings to her opens up something maternal in her. But all of this opens doors to the ugly past. As Camille sees hallucinations of the dead girls in her life she is forced to confront that trauma, first Marian, then her psych ward roommate. Is Amma next? As the episode draws to a close the hints towards the future draw the eye. It’s all uncertain, as is the nature of the show.
But shots like Amma approaching Camille from behind, her body contorted to look like one of a hawk, spreading her wings and incoming at speed can’t be put aside. What was previously flashed before our eyes is starting to become more physical and textured as ideas and allegations. One’s first instinct might be to suspect malicious intent; of course this is a throw off. Amma’s nature may be predatory, but Camille was never the one in the firing line of her claws. “It’s not safe for you here,” Marian whispers, closing fifty minutes of painful memories and deceptive threads. As we begin to rightly suspect Amma of misdeeds, the ghostly image of her mother glaring at them through the door at their vulnerability worries the mind just the same.
Sharp Objects appears as a fantastically balanced murder mystery/family drama, but things are never that simple. The two are intertwined, Adora has always represented the absurdity and evil of Windgap’s mentality, and she is the force that has suppressed and harmed every child she has bared. Münchausen syndrome by proxy is a condition in which caregivers make up, exaggerate, or induce illness on a person to earn affection. Adora is obsessed with caring for her children, to the point she will harm them to be relied upon. A condition possibly grown out of her own experience as a child, with a mother who ironically did not treat her well. The first sign of generational ugliness, inherited misery, and the start of an alteration in the fabric of her being.
“I’ve waited for this for so long—for you to need me.”
The deviation from motherhood that has bubbled under the surface comes to light in a grotesque realisation. Adora has poisoned her children, one of them to death; and Amma probably is headed for the same fate. When the girls in her care are sick, it’s like a needle has been dropped on a record and a rhythm sets in. Adora is back in tune again and with a purpose so clear to her. In regards to her relationship with Natalie and Ann, John Keane describes Adora’s fascination as her thinking of them as puzzles that needed to be solved. Two tomboys who were badly behaved and perfect candidates for improvement.
As well as this: they were clear surrogates for her daughter with those same personality traits whom she never succeeded in renovating from the inside out. Adora seems to be in a self-induced daze where everything is pretty and right. A fairy tale world where she can validate her actions. Anyone trying to burst this bubble is accused of being a harbinger of stress and badness. Her house is her kingdom, and she has to keep it in order. The look of faux worry on her face as she collects her bottles and pills to make her concoction is as scary as anything else in this show.
Camille escaped this danger as a child but as she herself knows, maybe she wishes she hadn’t. The price of this sickly evasion was a lack of love. Adora can’t adore her because Camille wouldn’t let her. She couldn’t bathe her wounds, brush her hair, tuck her in or be used to make Adora feel needed, so Camille was useless.
“You were always so willful, never sweet.”
Instead Marian was used until there was nothing left to use, an expired living resource. Amma, weaned into this nature since birth, is messed up to the extent she has grown to resent any attention given to outsiders from the women in her family. She was raised on poison, so sees harm a direct bringer of comfort. Amma has this enforced in her to the point she commits atrocities. She has been taught attention is the ultimate gift, and something one should fight for. She leads this double life as the perfect daughter in her household but the mean it girl for the rest of the town, just another layer upon the bed of lies that rots these women to their cores. She was never quite right, but Camille thought she could be saved. Camille saw a purpose for herself in Amma and a reason to fight when she thought she had none, an awoken instinct and a want to be close. She wanted to try with Amma, and try is something she hadn’t wanted to do in a long time.
During the finale, after allowing her mother to make her sick to confirm her suspicions, possibility the most journalistic thing she’s ever done, Camille is finally allowed into her mother’s bedroom. Four walls she used to stare in at but never get invited into. The memories of her youth infiltrate every episode, but in this final chapter is when she is finally reduced to crawling naked on the floor, as helpless as a baby. The key to the gates of the heaven of her youth was simply her total submission.
And as Amma roams the halls staring at two beautiful paintings separated by a stern pillar (oh the metaphors) Camille tries to get her out. Tries to save one sister because she could not save the other. But the unacknowledged psychological game and mutually beneficial relationship between Amma and Adora—as they willingly let themselves be moved like pieces in a board game—hasn’t just hurt the family but decimated any hope of recovery for themselves as a unit. Because Amma doesn’t know whether she wants it or not. Finally, as blue and red sirens light up the white walls of the house of horrors, the nightmare is over.
As warm musical notes trickle in, we are treated to some serenity. Amma has moved in with Camille, who looks to be doing much better, and all is as right as it can be in their world. After so much trauma, the relief of a simple, loving life for them is heart-warming. But this was never that type of show. After momentary happiness a picture frame falls to the ground and a tooth is pulled. Amma is a killer, too. Just like Mommy. Violence moves in circles, and it causes Amma to commit her own sins. And it’s always the little girls in this story who end up hurt. Whether it be mentally, physically or the loss of life altogether, the pattern is clear.
In a shock note that I don’t think anyone will be forgetting, the conclusion is turned on its head and left at that, perhaps the biggest change from the otherwise very faithful adaptation. We aren’t afforded an explanation. As the last frame fades the sadness creeps in, knowing that Camille—after so much trauma—has been rewarded with yet another crushing blow isn’t an easy pill to swallow. But she is a survivor, and if you’re interested in her reaction to the reveal I suggest reading the book, which affords a couple of pages to the grief.
Sharp Objects leaves us with questions. I say “leaves us” because that’s how I felt turning the last page of Flynn’s great book and watching Jean-Marc Vallée’s latest masterwork conclude. The crushing sadness of the circumstances that led to three generations of broken women all seem to turn away from us. Finding their way back to a dark corner while we are left in the black trying to sort left from right and understand how the pieces fit together.There is no win here, just a cautionary tale that has perfected its dynamics. Adams said in regards to her role that she believes everyone is either an imploder or an exploder. If we have learned anything from the violent credit sequences that feature Amma screaming and tearing at flesh it’s that Camille and Amma differ in one way more than others: Camille hurts herself, Amma hurts others.
While the deaths of two young girls are what started this story, it’s the two girls who survived that make it sting.