Does HBO's 'Sharp Objects' Pilot Live Up To Gillian Flynn's Novel?

Last night, HBO aired "Vanish," the first episode in an 8-hour miniseries based on Gillian Flynn's debut novel Sharp Objects. Flynn's an executive producer of the series, along with show creator Marti Noxon and Blumhouse Production's Jason Blum. The three creatives make something of a powerful triumvirate, especially when paired with episode director Jean-Marc Vallée, who's responsible for every episode of last summer's huge HBO hit Big Little Lies. With these bona fides, it shouldn't be too surprising that Sharp Objects' first episode is so deeply, immediately compelling, but it will still come as a relief to die-hard fans of Flynn's book who feared the author's fierce, unflinching voice might not translate to the small screen.

In short: it does.

Who Is Camille Preaker?

Sharp Objects stars Amy Adams as Camille Preaker, the first of Flynn's thorny and complicated heroines. Camille's working as a journalist in St. Louis when her affectionate editor (Miguel Sandoval) assigns her to the mystery of two missing girls in her hometown of Wind Gap. Camille does not seem overjoyed to return home, and once she arrives there, we get a sense of why. Wind Gap feels like a humid, southern version of Stephen King's Derry, Maine: idyllic and wholesome on the surface while blistering with unease and even danger beneath. Everyone here knows Camille from her childhood and has an opinion on how she's lived her life since, with the consensus being that the beautiful teen golden girl has somehow thrown it all away by working in a newsroom in the big city. No one radiates disappointment as piercingly as Camille's own mother, Adora, played with graceful indifference by Patricia Clarkson. There is just so much history here, a history we see carved out on the surface of Camille's skin, in the brief glance we get when she's not draped in layers of black.

Camille self-harms, though her weapon of self-destruction seems to be vodka rather than a razor these days. But who she is, why she hurts herself, how she feels about her mother: Sharp Objects only answers our questions in tiny parcels in this first episode. "Vanish" is atmospheric and almost maddeningly abstruse, but for those who can set aside plot-theorizing in an HBO series, it's an extraordinarily emotional first hour of television. This is no info dump, no exposition overload. "Vanish" is wholly unlike other pilots in its shrugging assurance that you'll follow it down Wind Gap's dusty roads with no real guidance, no hint of where we're going or even why we're here. It asks you to feel, rather than know.

This perplexity manifests most notably in Adams' remarkable performance. She is still and hushed and inscrutable here, a shadow in every room. A lesser actor would be doing almost nothing with such a quiet role, but Adams is living in her eyes. Camille's waters run deep, and "Vanish" will leave you wanting to dive right in.

History Over Mystery

The ostensible reason for Camille's return is given very little screentime in "Vanish." Two girls are missing in this quiet little town, and something is clearly amiss, but that mystery is not the focus of this first episode, which concentrates instead on the complicated relationship Camille shares with Adora and Adora's new husband Alan (Revenge's Henry Czerny) and daughter Amma (Eliza Scanlen). Amma is an especially captivating character: Adora's angelic little doll at home while a sneering, overly sexualized mean girl about town. Camille observes her warily, seeming to take no pleasure in the prospect of a half-sister, and we begin to learn a little more about our lead through hazy flashbacks of her childhood (in which Camille's played by It's Sophia Lillis, satisfying those of us who wanted Adams to play the older Lillis in It: Chapter Two before Jessica Chastain nabbed the role).

We learn through these impressionistic glimpses that Camille's younger sister Marian (Lulu Wilson in flashbacks) died of a prolonged illness when they were kids. This revelation offers a way into the pain that Camille now carries, but it feels like such a small part of the enormous burden that rests on her slender shoulders these days. Though the missing girls make for a more traditionally compelling mystery, Sharp Objects makes it clear that the real questions belong to Camille's knotty past. Vallée directs these flashbacks with such emotional urgency that the past suddenly seems more relevant and pressing than the present, which is a real trick when you consider how tediously expository most flashbacks are on TV.

So Much Still To Learn

"Vanish" reveals a couple of other players by its final credits – Chris Messina is the out-of-towner detective, Elizabeth Perkins is a petty friend of Adora's – and while just about everyone in this principal cast is an all-timer, Sharp Objects' first episode is unabashedly fascinated with its main character. Flynn has made a career out of crafting brilliant and bewildering antiheroines (Gone Girl's Amy Dunne, Dark Places' Libby Day), but there's something special about her first protagonist. Camille Preaker isn't like any other character I've read or seen, and in the capable hands of Adams, Flynn and Noxon – who's peppered her own career with prickly hellions, most recently in the shows UnReal and Dietland – she's primed to be one of the best roles this summer.

The heavy enigma of Sharp Objects may alienate viewers who have never read the book, at least by the pilot's end. It's not even that we're inundated with questions in this first episode, the way we would be if we were watching a more typical mystery. It's that Sharp Objects' opening hour doesn't even let its audience in on what to ask. But if you can allow yourself to surrender to the dark yarn it's spinning, to feel rather than to guess, to absorb rather than speculate, then you're in for a hell of a good reveal.