Noxon: Sharp Objects (2018) (HBO)
Created by showrunner Marti Noxon, Sharp Objects is an adaptation of the Gillian Flynn book of the same name, released as her debut novel in 2006. The film stays pretty close to the book, at least in terms of the screenplay, following St. Louis reporter Camille Preaker, played by Amy Adams, as she returns to her home town of Wind Gap, Missouri, to write a piece on the murder of two young girls. Coming home is hard for Camille, since it brings back memories of her sister’s death, and forces her to spend time with her mother, Adora, played by Patricia Clarkson, who owns a property on the edge of town, and employs most of the town in her adjoining pig farm. As Camille reports on the case, hooks up with the investigating detective, played by Chris Messina, and tries to look out for her young sister Amma, played by Eliza Scranlen, the tissue between past and present grows more diffuse, forcing her to revisit her childhood as she tries to develop her own take on the investigation.
All of that is brought to us by Jean-Marc Vallee, who directs every episode here. Just as Big Little Lies encouraged Vallee to take his languorous style to a new level, so Sharp Objects extends it further again. In part, that’s because of the sheer ambience of Wind Gap, which allows Valee to situate the entire series at the porous thresholds – between day and night, inside and outside, music and silence – that have animated his career as a whole. But it’s also because Flynn’s story, and Noxon’s screenplay, move so fluidly between present and past, demanding a director who can do the same. In most of Vallee’s films, this languorous aesthetic has tended to dismantle or corrode the connection between present and past, but never as radically as it has here, since the passage of time is so fluid that the film is never anchored enough in the present for flashbacks to feel like breaks from the main timeframe.
As a result, much of the series takes place in subtemporal intervals, segments of time that seem to exist on the very threshold of human perception. You might say that the series exists on the cusp of our temporal perception, as scenes from the past bleed into the future, and scenes from the future bleed into the past. Suffused with the memory of something that is always about to occur, the series doesn’t ever take place in the present tense – or simply frames the present tense as the infinite convergence of past and future, a limit rather than a stable state of existence. That subtemporal quality also shifts over into the spatial scheme of the series, as Valee tends to elide the middle distance that tends to anchor most film and television – or, once again, to reduce the middle distance to an infinite convergence of immediate and distant space, with no stable point of meaning in between.
In practice, this means that the series always seems to be taking place in our peripheral vision, even when the action is front and centre, which is perhaps why so much of the action unfolds as Camille is driving around the town. In a car, especially as Vallee shoots cars, the point of focus is always slipping to the side, always vanishing into the peripheries of the windscreen. Not only do Vallee’s ambient swivel shots emphasise this process whenever Camille is driving the car, but they become the main tool he uses to represent the town, displacing establishing shots with the sense that whatever the series is trying to establish has already passed into our blind spot by the time we are aware of it. At the same time, Vallee often shifts subliminally between close and long shots, drawing our attention to something in the remote distance, often in the deep background of a close-up, only to immediately resituate the scene from a remote sightline in a different, or oblique, direction.
Even within a single sight line – or especially within a single sight line – Sharp Objects thus brims with blind spots, as something perpetually flickers right beneath the threshold of human spatial and temporal apprehension. That makes for a story driven by micro-cognition – perceptual, affective and sensuous moments that remain poised right at the threshold of thought, but which the characters are typically unable to process until it is too late, or until the window through which they might be processed has passed. This is especially true of Camille’s body, which is entirely covered with cryptic insignia as a result of a lifetime of cutting – the way she dealt with the trauma of losing a sister – but which never resolves into a coherent series of words, phrases or sentences, to either the viewer or to Camille herself.
Within this diffuse space, Vallee’s near-continuous soundtrack doesn’t simply play as an illustration, or an accompaniment, of what is taking place on the screen. Instead, music is used to evoke these micro-segments of time and space that are over before the body can properly relay them to the brain. Rather than establish mood, music evokes minute shifts in mood that lie just beneath what the series can process, floating across the surface of Camille’s body like the words she carves on herself. No surprise, then, that the tonality of even the most familiar songs feels dissonant and strange, as the shifting vagaries of the present moment, which can never be apprehended directly by the series, mediate themselves through the soundtrack. The point is made succinctly by the credit sequence, which displays the same images for each episode, but with different songs each time. At first, this makes the images seem different in each rendition, but gradually something shifts, and the images become the stable field against which each song that accompanies them disperses and dissociates, first during the credits and then when it plays again that episode.
That surreal sonic field extends to the dialogue as well, which tends to be semiaudible, or subaudible, and is never delivered at a stable or secure volume. Sometimes we strain to hear, sometimes it’s impossible to hear, and sometimes words loom so loud that they take on a material life of their own. With the present moment displaced, or removed to a limit that can only be infinitely approached, rather than fully achieved, dialogue has no place to settle or call home, straddling past and future in ways that make the very act of speaking a contorted and convoluted effort for most of the main characters. At the end of the series, the twist is so shocking, and has such drastic implications for both the past and future, that it simply intensifies this displacement of the present, rather than resolving or restoring the lost object of nowness that the series and its characters crave. In that diffused temporality, or subtemporality, lies the genius of Sharp Objects, which comes closer than any other recent series I’ve seen to capturing the attenuated timeframes that drive our digital world.
That’s not to say that digital technology plays a particularly prominent role in the series. Yet its miminal presence seems part of the point, as Camille retreats to a backwater, and maintains a tenuous connection to her urban life through digital technology, only to find that the conditions of digital life are even more pronounced when she is away from the grid. Put more bluntly, moving away from a digital hub reveals how digitised Camille’s body and sensibility has already become, just as the citizens of Wind Gap, and Wind Gap itself, seem much more digital in their corporeality precisely because they have fewer devices to mediate their digital lives and bodies. In some ways, the twist of the series is that Wind Gap was already always digital, or already always suffused with the sickly proximity and intimacy of digital technology, as well as the fixation with vicarious experience so central to digital technology, all of which make Adora’s diagnosis of Munchausen by Proxy – the penultimate twist of the film – feel like the natural destination of Vallee’s visual style. Like so many other Southern Gothic characters, then, Camille retreats from the city, only to find that she is more connected, attuned and sensitive than ever before, making for an adaptation that is every bit as original, and every bit as digitally apposite, as David Fincher’s take on Gone Girl.
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