DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. This Sunday, HBO begins an eight-part miniseries called "Sharp Objects" based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, author of "Gone Girl." It stars Amy Adams as a troubled newspaper reporter who returns to her small hometown to investigate the disappearances of some teen girls. Out of that common mystery story framework, though, comes a very uncommon and disturbing and memorable character study.
The basic framework of Gillian Flynn's "Sharp Objects" would seem to be leading us down a very familiar path. You've seen it all before. A young girl goes missing. Then another is found dead. The story's hero - sometimes a cop or private eye. In this case, a newspaper reporter - returns to his old hometown to investigate. Behind every door and every cryptic conversation are dark secrets, but our hard-boiled, hard-drinking hero is persistent even when old memories and new conflicts bubble to the surface. It's classic, modern-day film noir until it isn't.
For one thing - and this is central and crucial - the protagonist in "Sharp Objects" is a woman, not a man. Already this TV season, we've seen another familiar genre - the spy story - flipped and re-energized in BBC America's "Killing Eve" by having women playing both the hunter and the hunted. Last year on the HBO miniseries "Big Little Lies," we saw a murder mystery untangle very slowly as we spent time getting to know the private - sometimes sordid - lives of some seemingly happy suburban women.
The eight-part "Sharp Objects" is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée who also directed "Big Little Lies." And the star, playing the best role of her already impressive and varied career, is Amy Adams. In the movies, Amy Adams has played everything from a Disney princess come to life in "Enchanted" to an untrustworthy femme fatale in "American Hustle." But in "Sharp Objects," she plays something new - startlingly new. She plays a reporter named Camille who is dispatched to make a reluctant return to her small Missouri town to investigate what may be the work of a serial killer preying on teen girls.
The clues and the facts come slowly, but it quickly becomes clear that Camille left town long ago for some very good reasons. And though she got away, she's still haunted by her past and keeps it at bay with some very destructive behaviors. She drinks too much, keeps to herself and engages in self-mutilation - cutting words into her own skin, then hiding them from view. She's hurt, angry and isolated. And as she tries to solve her mystery, we try to solve hers.
Also working the case is a visiting police detective played by Chris Messina who played Amy Adams' husband in the much lighter "Julie & Julia." In this scene, they encounter one another at the local bar. He's there to keep tabs on one of his suspects, the teen brother of one of the victims. She's there to drink at least until she, too, learns about the brother. But before she can approach him, the detective steps in.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHARP OBJECTS")
AMY ADAMS: (As Camille Preaker) You don't think he is?
CHRIS MESSINA: (As Det. Richard Willis) Funny girl.
ADAMS: (As Camille Preaker) Come on. You know I'm going to get the story one way or another. Wouldn't you rather be in control of the conversation?
MESSINA: (As Det. Richard Willis) That's a good line.
ADAMS: (As Camille Preaker) Maybe, but it's true.
MESSINA: (As Det. Richard Willis) Well, it looked like you were about to go talk to young Keene over there.
ADAMS: (As Camille Preaker) Oh, is that who that is?
MESSINA: (As Det. Richard Willis) Yeah, reporters aren't supposed to talk to minors without parental permission.
ADAMS: (As Camille Preaker) Jesus. I was just going to hit on him.
MESSINA: (As Det. Richard Willis) Well, that's different.
ADAMS: (As Camille Preaker) So is he a suspect?
MESSINA: (As Det. Richard Willis) You know I can't answer that.
ADAMS: (As Camille Preaker) So he is.
MESSINA: (As Det. Richard Willis) Everybody's a suspect right now.
ADAMS: (As Camille Preaker) So that's it. You don't have any leads - nothing.
MESSINA: (As Det. Richard Willis) Camille, can we just talk? I'm starved for some city folk conversation. I'll ask you a question about your life. You're going to ask about mine.
ADAMS: (As Camille Preaker) Yeah, I don't really do that - chat.
MESSINA: (As Det. Richard Willis) God, OK. Well, Camille, enjoy your evening.
ADAMS: (As Camille Preaker) Detective.
BIANCULLI: When it comes to dealing with the regular townfolk (ph), though, Camille is much more vulnerable. The people who knew her as a kid treat her the same way they did then. Her fellow former cheerleaders are just as cliquish. The boys - now men - are just as boorish. And her mother Adora - beautifully played by Patricia Clarkson - is just as theatrical and controlling. She's like a character from a Tennessee Williams play only with more bite and more venom. And Camille, reverting to old roles and patterns, eventually caves under the onslaught.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHARP OBJECTS")
PATRICIA CLARKSON: (As Adora Crellin) I'm happy you're here, but please don't embarrass me - not again.
ADAMS: (As Camille Preaker) What?
CLARKSON: (As Adora Crellin) When you're here, everything you do comes back on me. Understand?
ADAMS: (As Camille Preaker) Honestly, no, 'cause that might've been true when I was a kid, but I'm an adult now.
CLARKSON: (As Adora Crellin) Not in Wind Gap. When you're here, you're my daughter. You can move away and forget, but I can't. You don't know the people here anymore.
ADAMS: (As Camille Preaker) Yeah, believe me, I do.
CLARKSON: (As Adora Crellin) I haven't heard from you in months, and you just show up asking such horrible, morbid questions, stirring everyone up, staying out all night.
ADAMS: (As Camille Preaker) Look, mama, please - stop, mama. Look - stop. I'm sorry, OK? I'm sorry.
BIANCULLI: Like Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl," her "Sharp Objects" unfurls its deepest secrets very deliberately. And characters are never quite what they seem. This TV adaptation, written by Marti Noxon and others, depends a lot on visuals. Images - almost subliminal ones - give us flashes of what's haunting Camille. But the meanings don't fully reveal themselves until deep into this miniseries. Yet, as time passes, we experience life from Camille's viewpoint in an intimate, very unusual way. Scenes involving sex and/or nudity are both more tender and more painful than we usually see them, with more than just carnal emotions brought to the screen. And even during simple conversations, Camille's responses are complicated and raw. The performance by Amy Adams in "Sharp Objects" is like the childhood memories of her character of Camille - intense, haunting and entirely unforgettable.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFTER DARK")
DRAKE: (Singing) Uh-huh, uh-huh (ph). Yeah. Yeah.
BIANCULLI: Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews "Scorpion," the new album by hip-hop artist Drake. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEYONCE AND JAY Z SONG, "BONNIE AND CLYDE 2003 [CLEAN]" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.