8.28.2018 How ‘Sharp Objects’ ultimately lost its teeth and cheated viewers in the process
Warning: Spoilers. Oh, so many spoilers about the full season of Sharp Objects below.
Sharp Objects, the adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s (Gone Girl) first novel just wrapped up its one and only season on Sunday. Having missed most of its original run, I blazed through it in just a couple of days, and let’s just say that I have issues. Many, many issues.
Bear in mind I have not read the novel, which came out in 2006. I had read Gone Girl before it hit theaters, and watching that whole thing unspool in front of an audience that probably hadn’t was a delight. Sharp Objects, on the other hand, is ultimately a cheat formed on a very weak foundation.
Before I go there, let me praise Amy Adams: she embodies the troubled, alcoholic cutter Camille Preaker with spot-on precision. Adams always felt believable, though I cringed at the number of times she drank and drove without incident. I never bought her as the daughter of Patricia Clarkson (Adora); other than their shared red hair they look nothing alike. But I did like how Amy shows us how Camille hates herself and her body – she’s fidgety, plays with her sleeves, and rarely smiles with her whole face. On top of that, about 95% of the time she’s in outfits I’d likely wear around the house, with no makeup and tousled hair that could really use a good brushing.
But honestly, if I had to hear one more character tell Camille how beautiful she was I was going to throw the TV across the room. Amy Adams is objectively pleasant to look at. But after mention 12 or 13, I had to start wondering if it had been inserted into her contract that she had to be told she was good looking once she saw her wardrobe.
Now, on to the cacophony of WTF moments, unresolved story concepts, and downright lies to the audience.
Pacing out the surprises is always a problem for a writer: can you foreshadow without tipping your hand? Yes, it can be done, but it’s harder with the kind of savvy audiences we have these days. That doesn’t mean you can just toss foreshadowing out the window.
Sharp Objects‘ main issue is that they wait too long to show the monster. Not that we couldn’t have guessed early on that Clarkson’s Adora was up to no good in some fashion, but the idea that she killed her daughter Marian with Munchausen-by-proxy attentions is not even vaguely hinted at until after the audience has already seen the stack of paperwork of diagnoses attributed to the young girl years ago. We never see Adora’s mysterious blue bottles, or her lifting a finger in the kitchen for herself — she even has the housemaid cut an apple for Camille at one point.* The idea that we never see Adora making her concoctions over the stove until after we know why is one of many instances of underestimating the audience.
MPB is about control: you have a parent who sickens a child so they can make them well again (I first heard of this on Law & Order and in The Sixth Sense). This starts young, when the child can’t fight back and is more open to believing her parents can do anything, and can go on for years – or until the parent accidentally/intentionally kills them off for maximum sympathy. It doesn’t work as well for older children, who can put two and two together faster, and haven’t been groomed to equate sickness with attention.
Therefore, to buy MBP as Adora’s cardinal sin, we have to believe that she’s been sickening Amma (Camille’s half-sister) for years. But we have seen no blue bottles, and Amma is the picture of robust physical (if not mental) health through three-quarters of the series. We watch her rollerskate around town with her pals, gulp down drugs and alcohol while romping with her friends at night. (Plus, as we learn later, she’s a dab hand at yanking out teeth.) This is not a child who has spent her life regularly being sickened by her mother.
OK, so are we to believe that Adora starts dosing Amma** when Camille shows up? True, we see Adora babying Amma in terms of playing with her and holding her like a much younger child. They appear to spend ages with the dollhouse (a copy of the house they live in), getting things set up right. This is a bit of a discord: Amma outside the house is a mean girl who rules the town; inside, she lets mom cuddle her a little too closely.
There is no build up, or foreshadowing, to indicate that this was where we were going with Adora and her daughters. It’s not until Amma and Camille return home after a wild night of partying that we see Adora do her over-mothering and “medicine”-feeding, and by that time we know the score thanks to files that have been unearthed. I just don’t buy Camille as catalyst here – Amma had clearly been going her own adolescent way for some time; if Aurora is intimidated by her daughter’s burgeoning independence, which leads her to start the “medicine,” we should have seen some hint of it long before now.
As to the final “reveal,” where to start?
We’re told multiple times (shades of too many “Camille, you’re so pretty” repetition) that no one but an adult could have yanked the teeth out of the victims. Yet without explanation, we’re showing horror-movie style flashes during the credits that Amma was the one behind the killings. “She had friends with her,” Flynn told Rolling Stone. Cue the record scratch: Amma and her friends actually killed the girls? I call bullshit: if Amma’s her friends helped her kill those girls and/.or extract their teeth, that means it’s a town of sociopaths. Again, we are given no foreshadowing or even vague hints that the girls are anything but unaware of who perpetrated the killings, all so we can be “shocked” at the end.
This is a key problem of “Sharp Objects,” which works OK going forward and falls apart in retrospective. Once you start working your way backward, so much fails to stand up to reason. Consider this: we are now expected to believe that Amma and her friends not only killed the girls and extracted their teeth but at some point dragged one to an alley and propped her up on a bricked-up windowsill. Once again: Not the actions of a physically healthy girl. Certainly not one traumatized by her mother making her sick regularly.
We are also expected to believe that Amma kept and cleaned those teeth – then created an ivory floor out of them in her dollhouse … and that nobody noticed or said a word. When did this house renovation occur, anyhow? That dollhouse has clearly been around for a long time. Do you think Adora would have been fine with Amma – not shown to be a particularly crafty child, at least not in an arts and crafts sense – digging up the floor of a family heirloom like that to create a floor of teeth? Or if she was fine with the change, that she wouldn’t want to see the final product? Or that in her time playing with Amma with the house she didn’t notice that there was a floor made of teeth?
You could say, Adora saw and knew, or knew and saw, and chose not to care because I wuv my baby Amma too much. But you know what, that’s already taking me down fanfiction lane, where I’m writing more of the story than we’ve ever been allowed to see. This was the writer’s job.
The point is this: If you want to write a story that twists, fine. If you want to have surprise motivations or angles or even characters, also fine. But you cannot expect that story to work if you don’t give us foreshadowing. If I decide to tell the story of Goldilocks and it turns out that she actually is a bear-murderer of long repute, rather than a house-breaker, I better sure as shit refer to her knife collection. To not do that is to cheat the viewer.
In the end, Sharp Objects is a well-made production that comes with a wicked hangover. It turns out to be a mass of poses without even bare explanation (Camille has scarred her whole body with her cutting … including spelling out words on her back? How did she reach it? Also, why is she so close with her editor and his wife? Are they surrogate parents? How did that happen?) that fail to connect even the simplest dots. It chooses feeling and emotion over narrative sense. But this is not a magical realism story: this is a generational crime story with gruesome murders at its center.***
I am not satisfied. Neither should you be. Sharp Objects is all front, no back end. Here’s hoping the next Flynn adaptation does better by all of us.
* Where does the housemaid go in the last section of the book? She’s all over the house early on, but then vanishes just when she might be a narrative obstacle. Yet another cheat.
** Nice touch on “Amma” being an anagram of “Mama.”
*** Argue with me in the comments. Maybe I missed stuff!