Who is the killer? This is the central question to every murder-mystery that’s ever been written. In the endless catalog of whodunits made for TV, the best shows have little concern for the answer.
HBO’s latest drama, Sharp Objects, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel of the same name, begins with their version of the familiar question: Who murdered two young girls in this small Missouri town? As it approaches its third episode, the show has revealed how thoroughly uninterested it is in telling us. By contrast, it is relentlessly focusing on everything but the plot. Director Jean-Marc Vallée, who helmed last year’s engrossing mystery, Big Little Lies, is applying a similar framework here. For you to care about the people of this small southern town, you have to live in it first.
World building is an essential task for any story, but it’s a crime drama’s nervous system. Every production understands this undertaking, fewer execute it. There is nothing easy about making an audience recognize a place they’ve never been. You have to paint a picture. And therein lies the central challenge for anyone working to create prestige drama around a mystery. Can you make your audience care about what the brush is doing as much as they want to see the whole picture?
Sharp Objects is painting with a fine point, pun shamefully intended. It’s a slow drip, saturating the audience in its acidic tone and stellar performances. For a lot of people, that may not be enough. I don’t blame you if you’ve taken a hard pass at this point. Static melancholy is a tough ask. But Vallée and showrunner Marti Noxon aren’t being coy in their intention. This show isn’t waiting to be pulled off like a Band-Aid. It’s a story about open wounds.
Not surprisingly, Amy Adams has been terrific. She stars as Camille Preaker, a functioning alcoholic and questionably competent journalist returning to her hometown to cover the murder of a young girl (not a spoiler, just another dead girl trope). If this took place in a big city, the pace would be frustrating. In this tiny Missouri town, it works. Nobody is in a hurry to get anywhere. In fact, most people have never left. They half-heartedly admire anyone that found a way out. This is a community of labored despair hiding as modest small-town living.
When darker shows whiff, it’s undoing is usually found in overwritten dialogue that insists on reinforcing how distraught everyone is. Suffering and sour grapes are different things. And talking your way through plot creates a disconnect with the audience. We’d rather take the trip than read the brochure. Sharp Objects is smarter than that. The pain is mostly seen, not heard. It’s rule number one of storytelling: show, don’t tell.
The camera holds on a stare long enough to accuse everyone of something. Unidentifiable whispers orbit the frame of a cordial gathering letting you know sharks are always in the water. Led Zeppelin songs don’t soundtrack a scene, they’re a part of it, playing from Camille’s phone as if Robert Plant might end up being a suspect. There are chopped and muted flashbacks that appear in irregular intervals, not for cheap suspicion, but to demonstrate that Camille’s demons are far from exorcised. Everything has an uneasiness about it. The malaise that hovers over these characters is plastered on every wall, spinning in every ceiling fan, paved on every street, and sweating from every brow.
These decisions have brought more confusion than clarity, but they’ve also put us square in the middle of the story. When the gaps do begin to fill in, it won’t feel cheap. We won’t get baseless explanations or lengthy monologues about right and wrong, dark versus light, or worst of all, how humans are actually robots and robots are actually good actors stuck in a terrible show. No, we won’t get these things because we won’t need them. If you’re still watching Sharp Objects, it’s not to find the murderer. The show has lured us to a place more interesting than that.
In early 2014, HBO’s first season of True Detective succeeded with a similar devotion to tone and performance. The story benefited from the singular vision of director Cary Fukunaga. He took a convoluted script drenched in darkness and built a world around it that fit the depravity. Fukunaga used the haunted occultism of New Orleans and draped it over every aspect of a show written with heavy-handed mysticism. Seeing a world in balance with its dialogue made it easier for us to step into it. The bayou ambiance was so demonstrative, we could feel the humidity, taste the Lone Star, and sense the weariness of a job where even its victories start with a dead body.
Remove the ominous hazy tinge of each frame, the roving camera work, and the superb performances of its A-list stars, and you’re left with…True Detective season two. When the show lost its inspired world builder, we were given a calamitous and uneven story with superfluous details, contrived characters, unearned twists, and pontificating posing as dialogue that is better suited for the etchings of household knickknacks that take themselves way too seriously.
Had we enjoyed the texture the way we did season one, it may have made us less irritated by a drawn-out conclusion and Vince Vaughn’s memorable admission that his superficial suffering is like “blue balls in your heart.” Yes, that was actually said for dramatic effect, not for Wedding Crashers 2.
There are countless stories built around finding a killer. It’s the ones that don’t spend all their time looking that succeed. At the end of every televised murder mystery, a show will answer the venerable question and tell its audience “who did it.” A better show will have more concern for answering the audience’s bigger question: “Why should we care?”
One thought on “Sharp Objects, True Detective, and the World Building of a Mystery”
Now I will be paying better attention!
Very good piece, Mike Fox!