Amy Adams made her name by playing a series of nice girls, including a literal Disney princess in Enchanted and a con mans naïve wife in Catch Me If You Can—women who were simple, a little dumb, easily taken advantage of. Over the course of a career that's seen five Academy Award nominations (and somehow, never a win), she's moved well past that archetype—and in HBOs Sharp Objects, she firmly leaves it in the dust as Camille Preaker, who has been assigned to cover a grisly murder in her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri. Camille is a reporter, but mostly shes a staggering alcoholic, the kind who puts away a tumbler of vodka just to get comfortable behind the wheel. Her scratched-up Volvo is her traveling dive bar and motel of last resort; it makes for a good smoking lounge, too.
When she barrels back into town, an outcast turned agent of fate, she finds two dead girls and a detective from Kansas City (Chris Messina) who seems like the only other person willing to find out what really happened to them. But as Camilles fragile sanity deteriorates, her own journey becomes one with the towns. Throughout, Adams is a marvel, giving a performance like an open wound—after the damage has been done, but before it starts to hurt, right before the blood begins to well up.
As Camille, Adams is not just not-nice—shes nothing as simple as a mean girl, a bad girl, or a “cool girl,” to use a term Gillian Flynn famously defined in Gone Girl. Flynn, who wrote Sharp Objects and the novel on which its based, also executive produced the series. Her character is the hard-bitten, chewed-over remains of what once was a nice girl, before the family that raised her and the town she grew up in did their smiling, carefree worst. Sharp Objects is a mystery and a family portrait, but at its core it is about the double-speaking damage we do to girls—young girls, vulnerable girls, and especially eager-to-please nice ones.
To say much more would risk ruining how artfully Sharp Objects unfolds its mysteries. Show-runner Marti Noxon and director Jean-Marc Vallée tease the audience with their masterfully rendered chimera of a potboiler, offering a story that seems to change shape and direction with each successive episode. Vallée, who came to this project after his successful turn on Big Little Lies, is an ideal fit for Flynn: both are champion insinuators, using tiny, well-deployed details to construct their worlds. Sharp Objectss scripts yawn in scope from Camilles functional alcoholism to Civil War-era myths of female purity; from them, Vallée coaxes out ghostly reveries and twisted eroticism, splicing razor-thin fragments of footage into the shows main action. Are these flashes meant to be fantasy, horror, memory? All are possible; often, the experience is less like watching a miniseries than it is remembering a dream.
This is especially true when the series delves into Camilles bizarre family life, headed by her monstrous mother, a hog-farm heiress named Adora (Patricia Clarkson, ready for her close-up). Adora tortures her rebellious firstborn with an arsenal of passive-aggressive put-downs while lording over a Southern-gothic house of horrors, a home that seems almost supernaturally possessed—and is kept, by Adora, as a monument to nostalgia-tinged perfection. Her dressing room is paved with real ivory tiles, a platform of poached trophies. Even its other denizens seem frozen in time: Amma Eliza Scanlen, Adoras youngest daughter and Camilles half-sister, plays the role of a beribboned and demure maiden when shes within its walls, a sharp contrast to the teenage hellion she becomes outdoors.
Clarkson goes big with her performance, in a role that calls for something more stylized than Adamss seamless disappearance into Camille. It works. Like her youngest, Adora is really two people; in public, she's the soft and sweet Southern lady the town needs her to be, a direct contrast to Camilles broken skin and battered body. But her womanhood is a hollow, brittle performance, masking deep reserves of cruelty.
Similarly, the interlocking histories of Wind Gap hide every kind of sin, from drug use to community-sanctioned rape; at times it seems as if its seedy underbelly is bigger and broader than the Podunk town itself. But Flynns also at her most righteous in Sharp Objects, fiddling with the all-American—cheerleading, day-drinking, hunting practice—to seek the rot within. Camille, at the beginning, is the rot: Literally clad in black, and horribly scarred with the trauma of her girlhood, she is the walking manifestation of Wind Gaps heart of darkness.
This is dramatically convenient, of course. But it also pinions the towns ghastliest secrets to the flesh-and-blood stakes of lived experience, making for a story that is much more intimately immersive than chilly Gone Girl and snarky Big Little Lies. Camilles story, told through Adamss hesitant physicality—and behind a curtain of long strawberry-blonde hair, so alive its tendrils seem to instinctively curl around her—is one of barely maintained survival. Her life is almost nothing besides this desperate, headlong attempt to outlast her own pain. On the other hand, in a world that prizes and ultimately sacrifices its girls, this pain is also useful: its the only thing she knows that truly belongs to her.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:13 Fourth of July Movies That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity
A League of Their Own
What could be better company for your barbecue feast than the story of the Rockford Peaches, starring such icons as Madonna and Rosie ODonnell?Photo: From Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection.
Sure, the film is overtly political—but its a musical!Photo: From Everett Collection.
Paris Is Burning
For those whose July Fourth tastes are a bit glitzier, its hard to think of a better way to celebrate America than Paris Is Burning. Pay respect to our vibrant drag scene in all its O-P-U-L-E-N-C-E.Photo: From Off White Productions/Everett Collection
Nothing could be more restorative to ones humanity—and national pride—than watching Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tiffany Haddish, and Regina Hall tear their way through New Orleans. Relive the glory of the performance that gave Tiffany Haddish her breakout.Photo: From Universal Pictures/Everett Collection.
Wet Hot American Summer
Sleepaway camp is one of Americas best traditions, and what better film to celebrate that grand national pastime than the movie that cast H. Jon Benjamin as a self-fellating can of vegetables?Photo: From USA Films/Everett Collection.
Remember the Titans
This one needs no explanation, right? But just in case: Denzel Washington; Ryan Gosling; a tiny Hayden Panettiere; and one irresistibly inspiring football story.Photo: From Walt Disney Co./Everett Collection.
And if you do want to get really on-the-nose about everything, you could do worse than Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum teaming up to fight space aliens. Also, you cant really go wrong with Bill Pullman.Photo: From 20th Century Fox/Everett Collection.PreviousNext
Sonia SaraiyaSonia Saraiya is Vanity Fair's television critic. Previously she was at Variety, Salon, and The A.V. Club. She lives in New York.