“Sometimes I think illness sits inside every woman, waiting for the right moment to bloom.”
Gillian Flynn’s debut novel, Sharp Objects, has horror in its DNA, and HBO’s miniseries adaptation does not fall far from the proverbial tree. This slow-burn simmer is more aptly described as a psychological thriller, seducing its viewers into its moody atmosphere until they find themselves in the chokehold of its many twists and turns. But the traumas of womanhood — repression, anger, self-destruction — have long been fertile ground for the horror genre, and Sharp Objects uses aspects of the genre to allow the illnesses within its three female leads to bloom.
The series follows reporter Camille Preaker (Amy Adams, spellbinding as always) as she is sent to her small hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri to cover the violent murders of two young girls. As she returns to her roots and delves into the killings, the troubles of her past rise to the surface as well — namely, her strained relationships with her poisonous mother, Adora (a chilling Patricia Clarkson), and her mysterious half-sister, Amma (magnetic newcomer Eliza Scanlen). This slow-burn serves as more of a character study of Camille than a simple crime story, but the two stories intertwine and echo one another up until the series’ very last seconds.
Sharp Objects’ brand of simmering tension owes itself not only to the work of its cast, but also to its director, Jean-Marc Vallée, and creator, Marti Noxon. Known for his previous work on HBO’s previous knockout miniseries, Big Little Lies, Vallée’s strengths lie in conveying thoughts and feelings through images, rather than relying on dialogue; his M.O. is of the old adage “show, don’t tell”. Vallée’s style contrasts with that of Noxon, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, whose background in theatre shines through in every weighted word. Together under a team of producers which includes horror incubator Jason Blum, they tell a story that is at once deeply rooted in Southern Gothic tradition and entirely timely.
In particular, Vallée’s editing is evocative of traumatic memories and repression, very much in the style of the Southern Gothic treatment. As in the works of Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, and the first season of True Detective, the genre utilizes the macabre to critique traditional values; characters of the genre deal with repression in spades. Here, Vallée has Camille’s psyche function as a microcosm of Noxon’s textual Southern Gothic themes, and in his effort to emulate that same oppression, he borrows film techniques from a similar genre — horror.
Intrinsic to the horror genre is not just eliciting fear, but dread — apprehension of what is not yet seen, or, in Camille’s case, buried deep. Vallée offers nothing more than glimpses into Camille’s hidden traumas, building tension all the while. His trademark impressionistic editing in these sequences are near-hallucinatory; even so much as a touch or a glance sends Camille into a spiral of memory, conveyed in flashes of scenes, arrayed together in quick, disorienting cuts. Sound mutes and distorts in these flashbacks: Vallée is fond of synth-heavy music — the eerie piece “Tumbling Lights” by electronic quartet The Acid makes a frequent appearance — and these pieces of diegetic music often exist as Camille’s only remaining tie to reality.
Camille’s memories fixate, in particular, on the now-dead girls she once knew, her mind picking at them like scabs. Her first sister, Marian, gone under mysterious circumstances in their youths, haunts her in moments of rest, her whispers literally echoing in Camille’s ear, her smile and girlish bows present everywhere Camille looks in Wind Gap. The black-clad figure of Camille’s rehab roommate, Alice, dead by a heartbreaking suicide, rises violently to the surface in a handful of jump scares, looming in reflections and mirrors and out of the corner of Camille’s eye before she can repress her memory once more. And the murder victims, Ann Nash and Natalie Keene, at once grotesque and tragic with their rotted skin and mutilated bodies, provide a gory touch before they, too, disappear into Wind Gap’s latticework of dead little girls and into the recesses of Camille’s mind. They may not be ghosts in the literal sense, but Vallée’s masterful direction is nothing short of haunting.
The women left alive in Camille’s life — Adora and Amma — occupy more sinister roles. Adora is at once a nurturer and abuser; her first introduction comes in a flashback, where she lingers, out of the camera’s focus, barely more than a silhouette, and yet inescapably present as young Camille and Marian try to slip past her watchful eyes. Her oppressive grip, most often wielded in whispers as she touches Camille’s red curls, is established in this very first barely-appearance. Amma’s presence, too, permeates Wind Gap, although where her mother is a smothering pillow, she is a knife. Vallée’s lens lingers on her Kubrick smiles and her watchful eyes, and she flits in and out of the background of Wind Gap, floating on her rollerskates, which drone ominously in the background with the june bugs. There’s a shot in the sixth episode, while she and Camille glide through the town in a drug-induced rollerskating joyride, where Amma approaches the camera in unearthly slow motion, her back hunched, arms outstretched, long tendrils of hair and shadows obscuring her face, and she truly looks like the danger she is. Camille, both our victim and our heroine, must contend with these forces.
The influence of the horror genre in Sharp Objects goes beyond camerawork or editing or cinematography. Through its borrowed techniques, the series evokes the trauma of what it means to be a woman. The lives of Wind Gap women are fraught with very real terrors: rampant misogyny, sexual violence, murder. As is the Southern Gothic tradition, to be somehow outside what is deemed acceptable is to be picked at and torn apart in an effort to fit an impossible mold. Victims of this patriarchal violence relive trauma endlessly, as Camille does: plunged into memories at the slightest trigger. Can we blame Camille for her anger? For the ways in which she self-destructs? Can we at least understand Amma and Adora and why they’ve turned their pain outward? That dread, that tension, that fear not only of what society will do, but what one will become as a result — that is both horror and womanhood all at once.
by Megan Sergison
Megan Sergison is a graduate of Northeastern University in Boston, where she studied International Affairs and largely spent her time in undergrad watching movies on planes. She loves films that include witty dialogue, complicated women, and colorful cinematography, especially those of the coming-of-age persuasion. Her favorite films include Juno, Moonrise Kingdom, Moonlight, and Call Me By Your Name. She can be found staring wistfully out the windows of public transit while listening to film scores or over on Twitter at @megserg, where Barry Jenkins also follows her and once liked her tweet about Mitski.