TV Review: The Sinner
by Angelique Jones
The Sinner will have you hooked from bloody start to electrifying finish. This mini-series takes the murder mystery formula to a new level of addiction and asks some chillingly honest questions about the human condition.
On a stale hot summer’s day in sleepy suburban America, wife and mother, Cora Tannetti, feeds her child an apple with a knife on a crowded beach. She then uses said knife to stab random guy 7 times. Random guy is dead, people are screaming. Husband is confused, Cora is confused, we are confused, Cora is arrested, homicide detective looks intrigued, we are intrigued. We ask, why? This is the start of the jaw-dropping, can’t stop thinking about it, women-led psychological crime thriller that is The Sinner: the eight-episode mini-series created by Derek Simonds and loosely based on the novel by Petra Hammesfahr.
In an age numbed to cinematic violence and trauma, you’d think nothing could shock us; but the single most violent act in the entire series is so sudden, short and seemingly unprovoked, that it will haunt you, as it does the characters throughout the series. The Sinner is not so much interested in finding out the nitty-gritties of the crime itself, but the psychology behind the act: the ‘whydunit.’ In doing so, this reflects a poignant social commentary on mental health, gender, and human nature. The Sinner challenges our perceptions on morality, the distinction between crime and punishment, and societal pressures. Who really is the sinner?
Prior to the brutal and public act of violence against a seemingly innocent man Frankie Belmont, Cora, played by Jessica Biel, is portrayed through an intimate lens that alludes to psycho-emotional disturbances, and even Cora’s own attempted suicide as she overstays her dip in the lake. Opening the show with some artfully dim-lit flashbacks, followed by an up-close foreboding look into Cora’s quotidian married life with husband Mason (Christopher Abbott), the audience is quickly made to feel that something just isn’t quite right.
Cora Tannetti is a likeable character, albeit an uncertain one. We are as much engrossed in the unpredictability of this dramatic mystery, as we are by the captivating performance from Biel. As her first leading role in a TV series, Biel gives us every intensity, and technical complexity as is possible for a character who simply can’t remember why, yet still adamantly pleads guilty for killing this man. Drenched in raw close-ups and vulnerable shots, Biel gives us everything as Cora, the suppressed daughter of religiously fanatical parents – and it pays off. Just as the entire show is dependent on the triggering of her own memory for answers, whether by hypnosis, physical or auditory stimulation, we are also on the edge of our seats trying to get closer to this character’s normalness. For how can we invest in eight episodes without feeling something for the protagonist? Mentioned as “just a mom with her kid” with no apparent motive, Biel’s nature and detailed expressions add to her intrigue, and audience fascination.
To aid in the unravelling of this inexplicable crime and, importantly, to push for an understanding, is the intuitive Detective Harry Ambrose, tersely played by Bill Pullman. He too has a troubled, behind-the-scenes existence, involving a sadomasochistic relationship with a waitress, Sharon (Meredith Holzman). This relationship appears to leave him wanting more and us asking why from an empathetic stance. Like Cora, Harry too pleads guilty in his daily life, embracing the fetishist acts of punishment for some past-time acquired guilt – a guilt that he lives with alongside his all-consuming day-job. Harry is a character that enables a somewhat accessible parallel story-line for viewers, as we witness some of his daily monotonies and inner turmoil through Pullman’s approach.
As he (half-heartedly) attempts to save his marriage with his wife, Fay (Kathryn Erbe), Harry’s character allows us to connect to a protagonist that is real, translucent, human, with faults that we can attempt to comprehend or even relate to.
Harry’s detective approach, like the series, is unconventional, obsessive, instinctive and against the rule book – without his (destructive) commitment to establishing Cora as not guilty and the victim of some past corruption, we may have only seen the media presented image of Cora, the guilty killer, and not as an individual. His full-time interest in Cora’s case, and reviving her memory, is challenged by other members of the law, whereby the reference to her appearance only leads to a broader comment on the gender disparities within the judicial system, as well society. As a character symbol, Detective Ambrose undercuts the archetypes of a whodunit crime thriller, which in turn undercuts the contemporary systems in place.
A chilling allusion to the realities of mental health awareness as a collective, are seen in Cora’s hasty response to the idea that she might get her life back: “what makes you think I want my life back?” The Sinner questions what is really happening beyond the surface and what can be classed as true freedom, personal or public - living a lie outside of prison or seeking the truth behind bars.
The series is fundamentally led by powerful and resilient women, both in the seat of power (the judge) and the seemingly powerless (Cora). Cora is represented by a female lawyer, and her fate is at the hands of a female judge. The final, present-day decisions are made by the women. Biel is also executive producer of the series, making it a double-whammy for women in the film industry in front and behind the screen. The few sex scenes of the series are dealt with artfully and truthfully: there’s no lingering up and down shots of Biel’s toned body, and any discomfort felt by the audience is intentional. Instead, sex scenes are realistic and only necessary for the facilitation of the plot. As such, the final ‘sex scene’ of the series is shot with such effective jarring and crafted angles that the filming alone suggests that this moment is not okay – it challenges our voyeuristic habits as viewers and it feels as though we are meant to feel uncomfortable.
Seamless and innovative editing plays a crucial role in the unfolding of the unpredictable original plot and character development. The tight and sharp scene merges are functional and exploratory, mirroring important psychological patterns by offering a mix of smooth transitions into Cora’s flashbacks with the jolting reality of her present-day circumstance – yet both are interchangeable, which is worse for Cora? Long shots, specifically on Cora and Detective Ambrose, allow for the actors to delve deeper into the intensity of their characters’ psychologies. Occasionally, this even promotes a sense of discomfort and unease, as just like Cora, we are forced to face certain aspects of emotions that may so often be swept under the rug in television dramas.
Thoughtful, atmospheric cinematography plays with the intimacy of memory and the clinical coldness of prison and the publicity of the murder case. Blending the contrast of hard with soft focus, and the cold, blue tones of Cora’s cell against the soft dim lit indoor scenes of the bedroom and dingy interiors of Cora’s past, we are pulled right into the story through careful mirroring. We feel the claustrophobia of her prison cell just as we do with her childhood bedroom shared with her dying sister.
Unlike most shows of the same genre, facts are not withheld from us purely for suspense or cynicism, but because they are withheld from the characters themselves. And, ultimately, there are no facts, just perceptions. The Sinner’s drive is to unpick the whys, meanwhile blurring the distinction between crime and punishment, truth and lies, right and wrong. The song that haunts and provokes Cora at the start will haunt you throughout with its drugged-up techno tones and inherently prime-evil base. The Sinner engages all of our sensory levels, and enjoys playing with them.
You will be on the edge of your seat, eight episodes just won’t seem to be enough, and you will definitely not be able to predict this original, thrilling and provocative drama. It’s almost too clever.
The Sinner is available on Netflix now.
All images Credit: Netflix