Sharp Objects and the Representation of Memory
Dark TV series featuring alcoholic leads with a traumatic past are a dime a dozen in our current era of peak television. Sharp Objects rises above cliché for a number of reasons — our hero is a woman; that woman is played by Amy Adams, who can take any character and make it her own; the town luxuriates in the Southern Gothic tradition; and every episode is directed by the same person, Jean-Marc Valleé. This latter part is especially important. The main reason why Sharp Objects is such a painfully effective series, navigating trauma, repression and mental illness so well, is due to the smartness of the editing, and how it is used to explore the complications of memory.
Valleé has improved immeasurably as a director since he moved to HBO. Editor of his own images, the limited-series format has given him the opportunity to play around with time in a way that a two hour film simply cannot do. As someone who evidently loves to create a certain atmosphere and tone, his films featured great, idiosyncratic performances — McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club and Reese Witherspoon in Wild come immediately to mind – but ended up feeling flimsy in their narrative structure. With Big Little Lies, something changed, and suddenly his style was much more ambitious, deploying non-linear storytelling to jump between moments and rack up the anticipation as to who the murderer could be. Sharp Objects moves this style to its logical conclusion, creating a show that delves deeper into the past as our protagonist moves forward in her case. The effect is simply intoxicating, and one of the best representations of the porousness of memory on TV.
Amy Adams plays Camille, an alcoholic journalist sent by her editor to her hometown, named Windgap, to report on the story of a dead girl. These are the kind of stories that win Pulitzers, as they reflect both on a small town full of white people slowly crumbling (see: New York Times) while centring the subjectivity of the journalist herself. Windgap is in Missouri, a state situated between North and South, allowing the show to play around with and at times subvert the conventions of the Southern Gothic. Camille’s mother, played with acidic precision by Patricia Clarkson, lives in a large Colonial-era style mansion, subtly indicating that the town was built on the back of slavery (a whole dissertation could be written on the subtext of this show!). While the poor town is paying for the sins of its past, as is wont to happen in the Southern Gothic, Camille has to revisit her own undefined traumas, constantly roaming around at night, drinking vodka and listening to Led Zeppelin. To put it politely, she’s a whole ton of fucked up, inscribing words on her body with a knife, thus giving her problems a physical manifestation. No one sees this though as she always wears long sleeved jumpers. A picture-perfect model of repression, its a neat physical metaphor for inner emotional turmoil.
What this trauma is exactly is hard to say, but its evidently based in sexual shame and possibly even abuse, which is often the kind of thing that can stay below the surface for ages only to violently rupture at the most unwelcome moment. Sharp Objects understands that memories rarely come back fully-formed, and in large segments, but can appear unwanted in small drips and drabs.This technique can be insufferable in the hands of lesser directors – especially if an entire show or film is based around one traumatic moment that we constantly circle back to before finally finding out exactly what happened as if one particular thing can explain the content of an entire character. Jean-Marc Vallée makes it work by connecting memories to objects, thereby working via involuntary association. Its fair to call the effect Proustian, as coming across something seemingly innocuous can lead Camille back to moments of her own childhood. But where it diverges from Proust is that these memories do not come back as large chunks for her to explore — these are repressed memories, causing them to come in flashes, much like how the brain works in reality.
In Sharp Objects, this technique causes images to appear without larger context. Camille is rarely seen without her trademark water bottle containing cheap vodka. Constantly buzzed, she slips in and out of the present and the past; drinking to forget, to blur the memories, but never getting rid of them completely. They keep on coming back — whether its her dead sister, a crack in the ceiling, a spider in the ground, or a shed filled with pictures of naked women. Sometimes we find out what these mean, while some are presented without context. As well as looking, and sounding great, giving the show an addictive, immersive quality, it creates a show that is about so much more than simply looking for a dead girl. Its really about whether people can ever get over the burden of the past, and how the mind can work as one’s own worst enemy, driving Camille to constantly make negative decisions, such as drink-driving and self-harm. Played excellently by Amy Adams, she is a likeable character; smart and funny, intelligent and empathetic; she just really seems to hate herself. The greatness of the show lies upon the nuance of this performance.
At times, Sharp Objects seems unbothered by its own mystery, instead, like Twin Peaks, using the trauma of a dead girl to explore these effects on the wider community. There will probably be a solution to the killings (I haven’t read the book) but what makes the show great is how this solution will have to be tied to Camille confronting her own past, and her own sexual trauma. Content and form are inextricable from one another here, making this the best show currently on TV. Here’s hoping Valleé keeps doing HBO specials for ever.