HBO’s new mini series “Sharp Objects” is an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s first novel about a journalist returning to her home town to investigate a serial murderer of young women. The subject matter is particularly interesting because Southern Gothic has the strangest resonance of all horror related fiction. It turns the south into a bizarre and uncomfortable place. A place that normally seems peaceful and slow is loaded with murderous shadowy intents. But this story isn’t set in the Deep South, only Missouri, which doesn’t even really count.
Despite the appeal of “Southern” Gothic this show is not working. Amy Adams might be the greatest actress of all time. I have said so before. And throughout this very painful inaugural episode she puts on full display every weapon in her arsenal except her most endearing: her smile. This episode is joyless. Adams is so beautiful and so human in everything she does. And they did their damnedest to make her seem ugly and gross. But her humanity effortlessly shines through and the spell she casts may be even stronger because of it. But this also makes the show deeply disturbing.
Maybe the problem isn’t that the show isn’t working. Maybe it’s that it works too well. It feels like watching the actual pain of a real woman. It feels intrusively voyeuristic. Not at all in the ironic fun way that Hitchcock used to pontificate about. All film is fundamentally voyeurism. But its supposed to feel simulated. It’s supposed to feel fake on some level. But the 4th wall seems to have broken and Adams performance begins to feel inversely invasive of the viewer’s reality.
There isn’t exactly an arc to the first episode so its hard to explain what happens. But basically she returns to her childhood home and we are treated to many scenes of her character drinking profuse amounts of alcohol. Several scenes of her bathing in the dark. We get to see her monstrous mother (deviously played by Patricia Clarkson, she really should play more villains) berate her with Tennessee Williams like fervor. She goes about interviewing some of the people related to the killings and then becomes the discoverer of one of the dead girls herself. There are numerous disturbing flashbacks with the brilliant Sophia Lillis portraying the young Adams. In my review of It from last summer I wrote of Lillis:
“She has an extremely bright future. In many ways she’s just a younger version of Amy Adams in waiting.”
And when I saw they would be working together (or alongside) in this film I couldn’t wait to see the results. And the results are disturbing. Disturbingly real.
Normal people are often creeped out by fans of horror. They often think liking horror means liking gore or death. And many horror fans do seem to gravitate towards those aspects. But there is a segment of that sub culture that generally detests those obsessions. Gore is at its best when being used for comedic purposes such as the Evil Dead films. The rest of the time the less blood and guts shown the better. The less violence shown in a film generally the better. What you don’t see is usually far more disturbing.
Horror deals with aspects of humanity that no other genre is able to. It delves deep into the heart of darkness within the human soul. And in that we find who and what we really are as a people. To find what we’re scared of, really scared of means that we’ve usually found what we value most. What we’re most afraid of losing.
That’s why lovecraftian horror is so popular. The essence of Lovecraft is the loss of sanity. Sanity is our most precious commodity. It is literally what separates us from the animals. To lose our sanity is to lose ourselves. And in some sense that seems to be the central disturbing struggle of the first episode of Sharp Objects. Amy Adams is struggling not to go insane. That’s why she drinks so much. She’s trying to subdue the demons.
It has a similar lovecraftian bleakness as the masterful first season of True Detective. In fact it almost feels like a feminist version of True Detective. Something always feels off, the angles are askew. The elder gods could be lurking behind every door and window. There’s the sense that at any moment reality could break in on itself and sanity disappear forever. But that isn’t what makes this first episode so disturbing. Our society is increasingly learning to struggle with sanity. Either by maintaining it through healthy means or bottling it up with drugs. This might be tragic but not exactly horrific. No Sharp Objects disturbs because it portrays the stark naked reality of suffering conveyed so perfectly by Adams. And the experience of empathy can be painful, here it is almost excruciating.
I think this disturbed and horrified me so profoundly because my wife looks a lot like Amy Adams. They have the same amazing red hair and large piercing eyes. The same delicate ginger skin. And I hate to look at my wife when she’s sad, it pains me. Combining that with Adams’ incomparable acting was probably just too much. Others will likely respond differently. But this also highlights why I love horror. Go into horror with honesty and you will find there what you truly love.