Sharp Objects is an eight-part psychological thriller series, produced by HBO and adapted from Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name. Without hesitation, it does not shy away from life’s grim realities. It has been lauded by critics for its masterful portrayal of the dark, unearthed turmoil of someone’s inner thoughts and internal torment, as well as it’s particularly stark take on the impact of abuse or trauma on mental health. Watching this series is a visceral experience, whether outwardly flinching in horror at the pain subjected to the protagonist, Camille, played by the formidable Amy Adams, or dwelling on the considerable virtuosity of melding real-life despair as fiction, it will hit a nerve. With its grisly and brutal imagery and disturbing plotlines, emphasised by the omnipresent bleak, depressive tone, it is easy to presume it might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Perhaps it is too dark for some viewers, especially for someone who has experienced similar events of distress in their lives? This raises the question: does it cause more harm than good to bring such darkness into the limelight of the TV world?
In a way, we are presented with a duality, where topics swathed in social stigma or treated as taboo are deemed too sensitive to fully reveal on screen. As a result, the aftermath of trauma and the strain of mental health is not fully appreciated as the complexity of it all is not unfolded on screen. This approach passively perpetuates the notion that it’s a fleeting moment or something to snap out of, despite its debilitating hold on the mind.
Addiction may be the most conventional and accepted form of psychological strife that we see in the media, but with Sharp Objects, this norm is turned upside down. Camille is an alcoholic, but viewers are given more context for her daily vodka habit than television shows usually bother to provide. The unfurling of her life in the past alludes to the fact that there is logic as to why she behaves in such a way. This can be noted as a very crucial development in analysing a person’s dependency on a type of mental anaesthetic, where drinking is interpreted as an emotional crutch for dealing with childhood trauma.
What Sharp Objects does differently by a large margin, is it shows what it is like to experience emotional turmoil and self-harm. In this case, Camille has a chronic issue with cutting. Strikingly, much of the series’ commentary on abuse is female-specific, but it is not to say that these female characters cannot be related to in a general sense.
There are not many TV series that have showcased such extremes of the destructive nature of self-harm and how self-sabotage and coping mechanisms are inextricably linked. One learns how trauma and depressive episodes can be triggered by returning to places and people of the past. Camille reluctantly revisits her small-town in Missouri, primarily as a journalist to investigate the mysterious disappearances of two young girls. Here, we see how the side-effects of trauma can be embodied in flashbacks and hallucinations, and these flashbacks are an equally effective tool to demonstrate hyperrealism in film.
Under the nuanced direction of Jean-Marc Vallée, (Big Little Lies) there is no sign of reservation in diving deep into his exploration of family dysfunction and the palpable tragedy of a broken family. In Camille’s case, it’s the dynamic between herself and her mother, Adora. Not only does it tear open a searing hole of truth, in which the haunting childhood trauma lays bare for an unloved child, alongside the child abuse caused by the jarring mental illness of ‘Munchausen syndrome by proxy’ that her mother is unknowingly consumed by. In turn, the trajectory of Camille’s life and her personal choices is hung in the balance by certain coping mechanisms, one, in particular, that was absorbing to observe was how Camille plays music on her phone as an emotional escape. This is primarily depicted after scenes where Camille seeks relief.
It can be argued the exposure to this element of realism in TV will further inform viewers of the trauma of abuse and the impact it has on mental health. Only until recently in the media, has there been a shift in the feelings of conflict to no longer suppress emotions. Yet when a series of this ilk come to light, it can be accused of glorifying topics, as seen by the controversy stirred up by the notorious Netflix series ‘13 Reasons Why’ treatment of suicide in young people was a significant departure from the norm, however, despite its jagged flaws in certain areas, especially the lack of explanation on what the characters’ emotions meant and how to recover from an emotional breakdown, instead of heightening the theatrics, some of its controversies were still useful in igniting mental health awareness and suicide prevention campaigns by discussing these topics in a more accessible visual form for young people.
As an afterthought, Sharp Objects bears a question, is it bad to feel bad? At the hands of the social media era and its immersive hold on society, it is reasonable to suppose that we as a generation have been conditioned to erase the ugly side of life and sanction the very thought of talking openly about the struggles we ultimately face. In contrast, the gradual inclusion of using the art of story-telling will help further cement the concept of human suffering as a part of life and in time will cause suffering in silence to be a social norm of the past. Nonetheless, Sharp Objects corrosively dark subject matter and almost exhaustive melancholy, will inspire a sense of that inevitable existential dread, although personally, I believe that the emotionally gripping series leaves a lasting effect, it reinforced how I felt about empathising with others and how the revealing nature of ‘Sharp Objects’ on the topic of trauma, may be the tipping point to a more stigma-free society.
By Erin Jennings – Film Writer