With ‘Big Little Lies,’ ‘Sharp Objects,’ Jean-Marc Vallée takes TV by storm

Two murder mysteries with vastly different approaches serve as a showcase for women playing darkly complex characters.

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2017 was the year of “Big Little Lies.” The acclaimed HBO limited series enjoyed wild levels of success that helped it clean house at most awards ceremonies. The enthusiastic reception speaks to a larger shift in TV and movies that makes room for untold stories about women and the ways in which they function in society. One year later, director Jean-Marc Vallée is back with a series adapted from another mystery book that explores a hotbed of topics ranging from abuse to mental illness to male-female dynamics.

In “Big Little Lies,” five women set aside their distinctions both personally and professionally to come together against a violent predator lurking closely in their lives. The satirical drama, which is set in an upper-class Californian world of obsessive parenting, also doubles as a broad sociological study of a community grappling with jealousy and predatory behavior. The show teases its MacGuffin early on and even allows for an anxious chuckle here and there, but these women are defined by their sense of agency achieved through good writing and excellent portrayals by Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern and Zoë Kravitz. While “Big Little Lies” is a juicy show that deals with heavy topics in a graphic manner, it can still feel like a breeze in some respect when compared to its evil twin, “Sharp Objects.”

Adapted by Gillian Flynn from another one of her books following “Gone Girl,” the bitingly trenchant “Sharp Objects” is a grim and personal take on the crime genre. The only real comfort in watching this show is a pair of subplots and the little pleasures of its exquisite Southern Gothic setting. Taking place in rural Missouri, it tells of a St. Louis reporter who reluctantly returns to her hometown in order to investigate the murders of two young girls. The case opens up old wounds for Camille (Amy Adams) who comes to terms with her mother’s involvement in the death of her younger sister during childhood. “Sharp Objects” is a slow-burn mystery that sometimes crosses over into horrific territory. Needless to say, it is a tough watch that offers rich rewards to those who are willing to be taken to dark places.

What really separates these two shows is that they depict two different sides of abuse. In “Big Little Lies,” all the conflict and trauma is a direct result of husbands and men, whereas “Sharp Objects” is more concerned with the pain that women inflict on each other, specifically mothers and daughters. Courtesy of Gillian Flynn’s fascination with the gruesome underbelly of the crime thriller, “Sharp Objects” is a much darker vision that remains every bit as psychologically thrilling as its counterpart. That’s the secret of both shows: They manage to be entertaining additions to a popular genre while exploring themes so rarely touched upon in the medium. Shows like these test viewers’ perception of women and femininity as well as question the necessity of female characters being likable in order to identify with them. Amy Adams answers this question by imbuing her troubled character with a reservoir of empathy; hers is one of the most fascinating female characters who has ever stormed through a TV or film screen.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée’s roots are in filmmaking. The helmer of “Dallas Buyers Club” brings such high levels of style and technique to both of his projects that they almost work as long, episodic films. He’s a brilliant editor who pieces his narrative together in a fashion that can be disorienting at first, though ultimately it paints a detailed portrait of the characters and their environment. Using cross-cutting and many quick-cuts to enter the characters' memories, he reaches a wholly unique approach to flashback sequencing. He has used this technique in his previous films, most notably in the Reese Witherspoon vehicle, “Wild.” On the visual side, he creates an atmospheric tone by using natural light and uninhibited camera movement. Tying everything together is Vallée’s infatuation with music and its storytelling capability. Diegetic music is a vital source of his direction and every episode of each show features an amazing soundtrack.

The beginning sequence of “Sharp Objects” is a culmination of all the sensibilities that Vallée has as a director. After the opening credits end, two girls are seen racing back to their family’s mansion and sneaking up the staircase. When they open the bedroom door, it’s revealed as Camille’s apartment later in life. The background music swells into a loud, messy fuzz and she awakens to the song playing in her earbuds as the viewer is taken from flashback to real time in a seamless montage. This sequence, which sets the stage for everything to come, convinced me that Vallée’s work as a filmmaker is best demonstrated on a TV show.

Edited by Siena DeBolt | sdebolt@themaneater.com

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