The Sinner: A cinematic equivalent of a literary page-turner
The ‘whodunits’ have been a staple of modern mystery fiction ever since the genre became widely popular through novels during the early parts of the 19th century. Even contemporary media is replete with TV shows and films where the core ingredient is a crime that needs to be solved by figuring out the identity of the perpetrator.
But recently, there is a major shift in how this genre has been handled. Even last season was all about ‘who,’ with Emmy Award winners The Night Of and Big Little Lies, but this year is predominantly about the ‘why’ when it comes to TV shows dealing with the aforementioned genre.
The latest in line is the compelling eight-part miniseries The Sinner where motive is the main driver behind the thriller’s narrative.
Based on the 2007 book by German author Petra Hammesfahr, the show kicks off with Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel), an upstate New York woman living with a loving husband and a cute young son. But there is more to our female lead than meets the eye, since her aura belies her mundanely content setting.
During a casual day-trip to the beach to enjoy a sunny summer day, Tannetti is distracted by a familiar song being played by a couple sitting nearby. All of a sudden, she takes the knife being used to cut fruit for her son and in front of everybody, stabs a man to death. So there goes our reliable ‘who’ straight out of the window and immediately the primary question surrounding this particular mystery turns towards the ‘why’.
Tannetti claims she doesn’t know the victim and is unable to explain her actions that led to the killing. It looks like an open-and-shut case, but Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), an emotionally damaged detective himself, upon finding needle marks on the female protagonist’s arms along with her mysterious history, is able to relate with Tannetti and decides to get to the bottom of it.
As I have already mentioned, the fact that we are aware of the identity of the killer renders a lot of genre clichés and tropes pointless. So the creators had to utilise a lot of innovative writing to unravel this mystery tale, something they effectively did. The biggest compliment I can give to the writers is how, despite obvious limitations, they managed to turn the whole series into a cinematic equivalent of a literary page-turner. For The Sinner, in particular, it is not about the destination at all, it is entirely about the journey we take to get there. A voyage that we share with travel companions Detective Ambrose and murderer Tannetti.
This particular trip takes us down Tannetti’s sad past, where she was a subject of intergenerational abuse at the hands of her ultra-religious mother who held her responsible for her sister’s medical condition. The regular intercutting between the present and flashbacks is expertly handled and is one of the biggest reasons why the series is such a fascinating binge watch.
Jessica Biel had to completely deglamourise herself to play the character of the leading woman, a role that is a little tricky to judge in terms of performance. Acting out parts that require an actor to be enigmatic is always tough to excel in. It’s all about nuances with these kinds of roles; that help maintain the mysterious aura while also ensuring that an actor does not seem completely bland. Biel managed to sustain the cryptic quality throughout the series, so I guess it’s a positive in terms of her personal performance in the show.
Bill Pullman, on other hand, is saddled with a role that is fast becoming a personal pet peeve of mine. From Matthew McConaughey in True Detective to Idris Elba in Luther, cinema is full of detectives that are all broodingly troubled and Pullman’s Ambrose is no different. I am not taking anything away from his performance, which was totally respectable. All I am saying is that it would be really nice if we get to see a unique character of a cop every now and then.
Ultimately, The Sinner proves to be a decent addition to a different direction that the worn-out mystery genre has taken in recent times. And I find no reason why we cannot enjoy this particular ‘whydunit’ for that alone.
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