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Gone Girls: How Jean-Marc Vallée’s ASMR Filmmaking Collides With the Trauma of ‘Sharp Objects’

Gillian Flynn’s acerbic narrator has been replaced by free-associative visuals and lots and lots of Zeppelin. But does the ‘Big Little Lies’ director’s style work for this material?

Amy Adams, Rosamund Pike, and Jean-Marc Vallée HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In an essay published earlier this month on Vulture, critic Hillary Kelly theorized that Gillian Flynn’s best-selling success represents the triumph of a well-honed nastiness—not a triumph of style over substance so much as bitterness over good taste, or perhaps bad taste as its own form of delicacy. “[Flynn] crams her novels with so much grime and disgust that her prose turns pustulant, oozing out nastiness in satisfying but sickening spurts,” wrote Kelly, with a mixture of revulsion and admiration. “[She] encourages readers to feel disgusted.”

I’d agree with Kelly that Flynn is a virtuoso gross-out artist, and also that her 2006 debut novel, Sharp Objects, represents both the primal scene and the preemptive apex of this skill set. Gone Girl, which was written about a half decade later, is a more ingenious exercise in suspense-thriller engineering than its predecessor, and exponentially more elegant on the level of plot and sociological subtext. But its comparatively controlled provocations don’t have quite the same under-the-skin effect. You might say that the first cut is the deepest.

What really intrigues both Flynn’s critics and proponents is the daring, contradictory way that she uses point of view in these novels to simultaneously alienate and bind the reader ever closer to her characters. The history of genre fiction is rife with unreliable and psychopathic narrators, from Jim Thompson’s small-town scumbags to Bret Easton Ellis’s coked-out Reagan babies, but Flynn’s insistence on entering—and, on her own ornery terms, respecting—the cramped or ravaged headspaces of psychologically damaged women gives her work its paradoxical potency, opening her up to a wide array of feminist interpretations as well as charges of misogyny. “It’s incredibly misogynist to tell me that I can only write a certain type of woman,” Flynn said last month in an interview with Megan Abbott for Vanity Fair. “Because that’s saying women must be a certain type of person. … It’s such a ridiculous notion that my novels are misogynist because I don’t write the kind of women you want.”

Whether or not Sharp Objects literally self-lacerating protagonist, Camille Preaker, or Gone Girl’s supreme schemer, Amy Dunne, qualify as complex first-person characterizations or mouthpieces for tossed-off misanthropy (Gone Girl’s bifurcated his-and-hers structure allows haters to cry misandry and misogyny simultaneously), both leave the strong impression that any author—pop or not—would envy. Camille’s boozy, judgmental reflections on her swampy Missourian hometown and its Southern-fried social and sexual hierarchies, and Amy’s hilariously acerbic “Cool Girl” monologue—an epic rant that’s been unpacked and weaponized as widely as any passage in 21st-century mainstream fiction—are memorable because of how deftly they assume and reward our complicity. Like it or not, the narrators become the voices inside our head.

All of which is why I was a bit shocked when I watched the first episode of HBO’s new adaptation of Sharp Objectswhich aired its third installment Sunday—only to find that Camille’s voice-over had been excised: a bold decision that originated with series creator (and pilot writer) Marti Noxon and Flynn (who has an executive producer credit in addition to cowriting the final two episodes). It would seem many other people felt the same way, including series director Jean-Marc Vallée, who admitted as much to the Los Angeles Times. “I went ‘Oh, my God. There’s no voice-over in the script. This is what I love in the book. ... Where’s the voice-over? I wanna hear her talk.’”

If Vallée has a voice as a filmmaker, it’s an insistent whisper: the artistic equivalent of ASMR. The Montreal-born director wrote his ticket in Hollywood by directing Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto to Oscars in the stolidly conventional—and, good vibes aside, hugely problematicDallas Buyers Club. But his work since then has been increasingly lyrical and unorthodox, echoing his impressive French Canadian features C.R.A.Z.Y. and Café de Flore. 2014’s Wild, adapted from the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, worked up a fleet but sure-footed editing rhythm that collapsed moments in time and space even as Reese Witherspoon’s heroine kept trudging straight ahead on her endless mountain trail. Vallée’s brilliantly designed soundscape—a thick collage of carefully selected songs and snatches of Strayed’s text—strategically foregrounded Strayed’s interiority even when the cinematography showed her being swallowed up by the great outdoors.

Vallée cultivated a similarly poetic approach in his HBO tryout, Big Little Lies, a beautifully crafted soap opera (adapted from a novel by Liane Moriarty) that successfully obscured its central whodunnit beneath coruscating waves of visual and auditory distraction, including the ever-present (and in some corners, controversial) iTunes playlist of pre-tween DJ Chloe (Darby Camp). In Wild, Vallée’s music-heavy style was used to inhabit and enhance a single character’s subjectivity. Big Little Lies was necessarily an ensemble piece, and the director’s ability to put us inside the heads (and headphones) of a half-dozen protagonists represented his deftest balancing act yet. By leveraging Moriarty’s choral structure, in which the characters directly address the audience in their own distinct and contentious voices, against his own desire to create unspoken connections and resonances between them, Vallée’s judiciously timed cuts and sound cues accomplished what a less ambitious show would try to achieve simply through dialogue.

Sharp Objects finds Vallée trying pretty much the same thing, but more intensely. For some critics, the show is the happy evolution of his style. But as the filmmaker himself suspected, the excision of Flynn’s inimitable literary voice—the harshness that she granted to Camille—has a profound effect on the material, which doesn’t necessarily lend itself to such artful rearrangement. In lieu of Camille’s voice, we’re granted access to her iPod, a bit of directorial self-plagiarism that’s tied to the show’s biggest narrative departure from the book. (The laborious retconning of Camille’s history to justify why she spends so much time driving around Wind Gap listening to M. Ward and Led Zeppelin strikes me as a misallocation of running time, if not the licensing budget.) We’re also granted access to her mind’s eye, which sounds like but isn’t quite the same thing. The incessant glancing, often context-free inserts of props, objects, and locations vibrate with a Malickian sense of mystery, similar to but distinct from the precise, journalistic sense of detail with which Camille narrates her story in the book. For all the skill behind the technique (as well as in Adams’s performance, which is very good indeed), the result is, thus far, a vaguer protagonist—one whose edges seem to have been rounded off in the process.

It may be that Vallée is just naturally a soft-focus kind of guy—an emotionally generous and humane director who’s never met a character he couldn’t at least halfway redeem (well, maybe except for Big Little Lies villain, who gets what coming to him). Sharp Objects is fascinating as an example of a gifted auteur trying to impose his sensibility on material that resists it.

Flynn’s participation in Sharp Objects, the show, suggests she doesn’t feel let down by the end result, but I’d say her hard-case writing is better entrusted with a filmmaker who wears their aesthetic like a full-metal jacket. David Fincher’s adaptation of Gone Girl is great (yes, great—his best movie since Zodiac) in part because the script (by Flynn) retains just enough of the novel’s voice-over, via Amy’s fabricated but documentary-precise diary entries, to strike a faithful tone without playing like a book on tape. Fincher’s characteristically fleet but concrete style—which has been present since Alien 3, but really came into its own around the time of Panic Room—does the rest.

In possibly purposeful contrast with its title, the imagery of Sharp Objects is almost entirely fuzzy, but Gone Girl’s framing and cinematography have the same wry, pitiless clarity of Flynn’s prose. Where Vallée’s wobbly montage is meant to evoke Camille’s fluttering consciousness—her confusion of memory and the present tense—Fincher and his editor, Kirk Baxter, impart a palpable sense of momentum while juggling multiple timelines and versions of reality. Even in flashbacks, every cut moves the story and the characterizations forward: The two-minute sequence set to the novel’s “Cool Girl” monologue translates Amy’s breakneck thought process (and Flynn’s viciously staccato prose) into something as visually exciting as a Mission: Impossible set piece, even when it’s showing nothing more spectacular than a trip to Walmart.

Granted, as far as speed and compression go, Gone Girl has the advantage of being produced as a two-and-a-half-hour movie, while Sharp Objects arty form of goldbricking and diversion (not the worst idea in the world when you’re trying to disguise the identity of a killer who is hiding in plain sight) is tied to it being a miniseries. It may be that Vallée’s approach, however much it might seem to be holding things up, will yield long-term rewards as the show’s various narrative and character strands coalesce. But the mean, Gillian Flynn–ish voice inside my head says I’ll believe it when I see it.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.