Sharp Objects & The Initiation Of The Screen She-Shaman

It feels somehow legit that I write this run-down with a cold, in an end-of summer malaise – the feverishness of Sharp Objects almost requires a state of vulnerability for an honest reflection, a mirroring as equaliser to its steady turbulence. I’m also afraid that if I wait more to claim it with words, it will disappear from memory, mixing with half-naked parts of my own mind, like all great art does, while it comforts and disturbs.

And disturb it does, most of all the mores of a new kind of gender simplification, a strange enlightened puritanism, born of a patriarchal wound, but facilitated by women – a festering sore we must inevitably tend to, before it infects our sane minds, and we become what we always knew we were victims of.

For this we need an anti-heroine, a virtual she-shaman – a woman neither good, nor bad, but true.

Shamans, they’ve been to hell and back, and unlike the psychopath (more on that later), they haven’t brought the devil with them. Trickster healers in some societies, in most they do not know they are exceptional – merely outcast souls that have undergone great trauma compelled not to look away. They serve as lighting rod to the rest of humanity, in an act of both defiance and self-sacrifice.

Camille emerged fully formed from literature, bridging the divide to the small screen, via a big screen frame, a she-shaman forged in the era of the return of the witch, expanding the liminal space between traumatic events – taking the silver bullet of all audience assumptions and projections.

Her eight steps to initiation are the eight elliptical TV episodes of pure undistilled cinema, each bearing a one-word title, taken directly from her skin.

Camille’s task is similar to Rust Cohle’s wounded healer in True Detective, but infinitely harder, because the world we live in allows men to be unpleasant, but never forgives women anything less than likeability.

Showrunner Marti Noxon put it like this in Vulture: “We have all the same feelings as any other human being. We can be completely shitty – just like a man. And we don’t necessarily have to have a really sympathetic backstory.”

Walking the razor’s edge (the crux of Sharp Objects) between controlled insanity and an insane reality, Camille moves in a haze of pain, insight and intoxication, stumbling across the conformist landscape, ruffling the smooth surfaces of settled lives, uncovering the gangrenous bones beneath. Never destructive for the mere thrill of it, always moving towards a place of healing, a state of peace.

Played like a boss by Amy Adams, a pulsating vortex of courage and vulnerability, Camille rattles each individual skeleton in the closet all over her creepy hometown, where she drives in from the big city, with a trunk full of history – an alcoholic, half-hazard, semi-successful journalist, with maybe a spark left, sent by a friendly editor to cover a story of what could potentially be a serial murder of young adolescent girls. One girl was murdered in a most sadistic way, her teeth removed, another one has gone missing.

Wind Gap, Missouri is a place that barely holds together its own presentation. It’s the kind of town where children act like adults, and adults act like children, as if everyone peaks at some point in their twenties, and thereafter only maintains a mummified version of themselves, embalming it with liquor and lies. The occasional oddity, like the town mouthpiece Jackie (a riveting Elizabeth Perkins), perpetually boozy, but unflinchingly direct, makes the entire spectacle of collective solipsism more deviant still.

The town’s primary industry is pig slaughtering,  which makes the monies inherited by the rich folk, and the daily labour of the poor folk, a bloody business.

Camille also hides a bloody secret beneath layers of dark clothes she never sheds. She is a cutter. And her compulsion is words. Her body is covered in scars that scream of unspoken childhood terrors, adolescent sexual trauma, murky bondage fantasies, but most of all they speak of guilt and shame, and perpetuate that shame. As a women, Camille is cocooned in her inner demonisation, never letting a man get under her skin. Or touch it.

In this web dwell spiders, queen of which is Adora, Camille’s mother – Patricia Clarkson at her most regal – ethereal, cryptic, fully committed to self-glamorisation even when performing the most simple of deeds. Never was a woman better dressed or more dedicated while making a cup of tea. A high priestess of Southern Gothic concocting a ritual brew in her dreamy antebellum mansion, swinging to the smooth tunes of French chansons, belittling her eldest daughter at every turn of phrase. The narcissist extraordinaire.

There are ghosts. So many ghosts. The ghostly presence of the two murdered girls hovering over town. The wild children, the tomboys, the shunned ones. The princess ghost, Camille’s late sister, the saintly Marian, who died mysteriously in her early teens. Then a lost girl ghost, Camille’s psychiatric ward roommate, a companion in her long circular car rides, evoked by an eerie soundtrack, and flashbacks of cleaning fluids passing by on hospital trolleys.

All of them seem to converge in the blank face of the princess contender – Camille’s half-sister Amma, very much alive, but also somehow ghostly – Adora’s child with new husband Alan (a cunningly multi-layered Henry Czerny), a man so beta that he blends with background music. Literally.

Amma is astonishing, presenting herself as a proudly Machiavellian lolita, she’s a precocious young teen circling the town with her posse on roller blades, disturbingly predatory and tragically needy in equal measure, acted to the chills by Eliza Scanlen. Petulant, bored and hungry for attention, Amma lives a double life, splitting herself in two. Good girl/bad girl switched on and off as opportunity requires. She idolises Camille, the rebel girl all the boys were after. Or so the legend goes.

Sharp Objects is a tale of female rage – of women hurting other women – toxic mothers & corrupt daughters, symbiotic relationships, violent envy, cruel competition, paralysing guilt, sex as commodity, emotional hijacking and fierce territoriality, sacrifice of substance to form, desecration of the innocent  – all those dark, dark vagina dentata materials blooming a venomous, crimson red in the patriarchal dollhouse.

Filmed by Jean-Marc Vallée as close to an inner experience of emotional recall as I have seen, it dares the spectators to question their perception, indeed to question their sanity, as it weaves a tale of nurture vs. nature, of a womanhood inverted and painfully exposed.

I’ve witnessed too many a power-play from women to ever be as naive to think that we are not as a gender capable of incalculable nastiness. The difference has been in the execution of harm, as that disempowered rage that knew no bounds, but had little leverage, needed vessels for its implementation. Sometimes other women, impressionable, weaker in will, eager to please, typically husbands and lovers, bound by eros, obligation, and shame, and most tragically – one’s own children, sons and daughters as extensions of the aggressive narcissistic impulse.

Often the harm would be mental, rarely physical, always emotional. And then the damage hitches a ride to the next generation in the never-ending spiral of sugar-coated bile, ‘a little bit of sweet before the bitter’ as Adora would say – its ugly aftertaste distinguishable just under the surface of manicured conversations.

Sharp Objects is also, pointedly, a tale of male powerlessness in the face of all this covert rage, a dismissal of truth that is at the same time arrogant, complicit and cowardly.

The old town detective (a hard-boiled Matt Craven), with a long-time crush on Adora, is looking away from all evidence that points to an insider, especially a female one. The younger city detective smitten by Camille (a Pacino-esque Chris Messina) is hell-bent on uncovering the truth, but cannot face her uncovered skin. Camille’s kindly father-figure editor (steady Miguel Sandoval) sent her homeward to find closure, not realising that closure for her might mean death. The townsmen are overgrown adolescents, sticking to old tropes about themselves, and their women, and in fact the only adult male that does not look away has actually just come of age, but barely. John (a grounded Taylor John Smith) is the sensitive city boy, newcomer in town, seeing the bigger picture, and openly mourning his dead sister – therefore an immediate suspect and scapegoat. But even someone like him cannot seem to let loose of his overbearing girlfriend – because it would mean too much hassle.

However, he does take interest in Camille. She finds him in a bar, about to be arrested and falsely accused, they drink and talk about their dead sisters, then she follows him to his motel on a dare, where something that is destined to be a really bad decision morphs into a painfully moving encounter – a compassion rather than passion, one that brings the entire stunted adulthood arc full circle. John asks Camille to see her skin, then gently reads aloud every word scarred on her body.

The body as evidence. One’s only true territory. Ground zero of all power games.

Chillingly, it’s also mother Adora that utters that dictum: ‘the body collects’.

As author Gillian Flynn observed in her Vanity Fair interview: “a matriarchy is just as ugly as a patriarchy. It may look a little different, but power is bloody,” I’m fully aware how much easier it is to write this analysis today just because I am a woman. Maybe power did switch genders, but it’s still ultimately the opposite of love.

The recurring theme of the sinister woman in white roaming the land, abducting the young, told in whispers by local children, the true witnesses of the unspoken horror of adult delusion, becomes the central visual marker of Sharp Objects. A nourisher turned destroyer.

In the end, murder is found to be literally and symbolically homemade, performed by insiders, not outsiders, by the darlings of society, not the black sheep – revealing the consistent circumstance that made the greatest crimes in human history possible, as mass crime can only be executed with mass complicity. And the terror not only has a familiar face, but is also a maternal family pattern – as trauma found its way through the genogram: the unspeakable crimes of mothers abusing their daughters, being abused as daughters, abused children abusing other children, the unseen crimes, that other mode of familial violence that is so dark to behold, that all but few look away.

The abusers might have gone through hell, but they brought the devil back. The making of the psychopath. Deeply wounded, but unwilling to change, they split, crack in the middle, creating a placid mask to protect the raging monster within, continuing the cycle of violence under the protection of conformity. Terrified, but never facing the terror in themselves, they pass it on to others, because even monsters wish to somehow heal.

Shamanic souls, however, are willing to change – compelled to, in fact. They do not comply. Camille survived because she resisted her mother, but she also suffered the consequences, coping by turning all that violence inward. There was no help in sight. She had to deal with it alone.

Strong enough to face their own shadow, to ‘see in the dark’, the trickster healers transmute the pain into understanding, where healing begins. This space of uncertainty is not a comfortable place to be, there is no societal protection on the threshold, only the constant threats of shame and ostracization.

And yet, being in the place of liminality is a form of protection in itself, because the truth never makes a deal with the dark.

As with Camille, this is a state that, by its nature, leans towards kindness. 

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