'Sharp Objects': HBO's Amy Adams thriller cuts like a knife

·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Amy Adams in HBO’s <em>Sharp Objects</em>. (Photo: HBO)
Amy Adams in HBO’s Sharp Objects. (Photo: HBO)

One of the most eagerly anticipated TV events of the year — Amy Adams starring in an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2006 novel, Sharp Objects — turns out to be everything you might have wanted. And also some things you didn’t know you wanted: This eight-part HBO miniseries is a scary thriller, a Southern gothic melodrama, a serial-killer murder mystery, and a dual portrait of motherhood and sisterhood — all of it combined with a sleek ease that rarely lets any effort show.

Adams plays Camille Preaker, a big-city reporter who goes back to her small Missouri hometown to write a piece about an unsolved murder. Right from the start, Sharp Objects is a different kind of production. Producer Marti Noxon (Dietland) and director Jean-Marc Vallée (Big Little Lies) position Camille as the sort of hard-drinking, cynical professional who has long been portrayed in pop culture by a man. In Flynn’s novel, Camille is tough, shrewd, and wounded — self-wounded, as it turns out, in a physical as well as a psychic sense. In bringing this character to the screen, the working trio of Flynn, Noxon, and Vallée have found a way to present Camille’s mental state in a way that’s not exploitative or used for shock value. It also doesn’t prevent Camille from working hard and doing her job well.

Camille arrives in town to search for clues, but first, like any good daughter, she has to check in with her mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson). But there’s nothing so casual as “checking in” with a mother like this: Adora presides over a gloomy mansion trailing wisps of tragedy. She fusses over Amma (Eliza Scanlen), Camille’s half-sister, a high-schooler who puts on a delicate front while hiding a wild side. Almost immediately, Camille is plunged into the thick family drama that Adora maintains, a woozy mixture of smothering mother-love and neurotically repressed sexuality that makes us understand why Camille has tried to put distance between her mother and herself.

The small-town murder is also being investigated by a cop played by Mindy Project’s Chris Messina. Flynn has peopled the town of Wind Gap, Mo., with lots of other wickedly colorful characters including Elizabeth Perkins as Camille’s blowzy aunt and Madison Davenport in the smaller but vivid role of a pushy young girl trying to keep her boyfriend from being considered a suspect. The ensemble is a tight one, and Clarkson has a lot of drawling fun making Adora a sensuous gargoyle. But ultimately, Sharp Objects is Amy Adams’s star vehicle: Flinty and wisecracking, damaged but resilient, her Camille is a hard-boiled hero with depth. You watch her with the same immense pleasure you get when you watch a classic movie star in a noir film, like Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, or Jack Nicholson as J.J. Gittes in Chinatown. Sharp Objects is a great-looking production — Vallée directs all the episodes with swanky allure — but it’s Camille and Adams that will keep you coming back for eight weeks to watch.

Sharp Objects airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO. Watch the trailer:

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