“I’m going out to join the search party now,” St. Louis crime reporter Camille Preaker nearly whispers to her editor in the Sunday night premiere of HBO’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s book Sharp Objects, while cradling a pay phone in one hand and an ample glass of whiskey in another. “Hopefully, we’ll turn up a dead little girl.” Amy Adams’ messy-haired, chain-smoking Camille has been sent to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, where dusty, empty storefronts line the streets of the fictional town square, to get a good story. Her editor hears a young girl has been strangled and there’s another one missing. Hoping for a serial killer, he asks her for a story full of “color” and bleak local charm, and so Camille begrudgingly packs up her dirty car, her repeatedly replenished Evian bottle filled with vodka, which she drinks from as if it’s water, and heads back home.
As opposed to gritty crime dramas that center on sharp-eyed detectives (True Detective, The Fall, Twin Peaks), here it’s not necessarily Camille’s job to solve the murders that make up Sharp Objects’ haunting centerpiece; rather, it’s her job to sell their young deaths as a compelling, perhaps even award-winning, story. We see her, with sensitivity but sometimes a smirk, try to coax information out of town police, locals, and detective Richard Willis (played by Chris Messina). “You know I’m gonna get the story one way or another. Wouldn’t you rather be in control of the conversation?” Preaker tells him. “That’s a good line,” Willis replies. “Maybe, but it’s true,” she retorts.
Much has been written about the Western obsession with pretty, white, dead girls—prom queens, pageant girls, sorority sisters. They dominate our television screens and bestseller lists and our news outlets, writers and reporters knowing we’ll always click on the girl with a once promising future found in a ditch, or basement, or perhaps nowhere, since her remains still await discovery. When interviewing the father of one of the victims, the father tells Camille that he thinks, because his daughter wasn’t raped, that a “faggot” did it. “I say it’s the only blessing we got,” he says, with disturbing casualness. “I’d rather he kill her than rape her.” Better death than an assault on his daughter’s virginal innocence.
As Camille longs for a dead body to report on, detective Willis wishes for a serial killer, and the local teens speculate that the same could happen to any of them, Sharp Objects becomes a uniquely meta exercise in parsing the grim ways we talk about and secretly covet dead girls in a medium that loves them. As a glossy, expensive HBO program, it’s a murder mystery that forces us to reflect on our desire to consume it. “You just show up, asking such horrible, morbid questions, stirring everyone up!” is what Camille’s cold, Southern Belle of a mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson), who thinks it’s better to not discuss these sorts of things, yells at her at one point.
What makes Sharp Objects even more compelling is the fact that our journalist enters her hometown with the baggage of a woman who’s already been broken by this wretched town. Just as Camille is trying to process and report out the trauma of the town’s victims, she is attempting through self-harm and alcohol to suppress the trauma of her own past, still vague to viewers. Director Jean-Marc Vallée places the show on a disorienting timeline, with scenes slipping in and out of Camille’s sensitive memories—a seat on the porch transports us back to an old conversation with her dead younger sister; a walk in the woods recalls a high school moment of a young Camille in cheerleader uniform being chased by a group of boys.
The privileging of Camille’s memories and all of its rocky, wounded terrain, underscores the fact that for many women reporters, tackling stories about murdered girls can be triggering, let alone those that take place on the streets you once walked as a teenager. At the end of Sharp Objects’ premiere, Camille ultimately gets her “little dead girl,” the one she’s been waiting for, the one to make her story exciting. But when it happens, she can hardly look at her, shutting her eyes so tightly as if she had stared directly into the sun.