The Sinner review
The mother of all mysteries?
Who among us doesn't love a good rage-out? Leaning on the horn when you're stuck behind an idiot doing 20 below the speed limit is a good outlet. Embedding a game controller in a wall after you lose is also healthy catharsis. Tell you what isn't, though: wordlessly handing your toddler to your husband so you can get up and go shank a complete stranger to death in front of other picnicking families. That's the basic, brutal premise of The Sinner, and trying to make sense of this senseless act is the seed of an addictive psychological thriller.
On the surface, Mason (Christopher Abbott) and Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel) seem to be the very portrait of dead-eyed suburbanite happiness. They live in a less-amusing, extended episode of Everybody Loves Raymond; parenthood and marriage is being juggled while in-laws who live way too close provide unwanted commentary. Dig a little deeper, however, and we see that the Tannetti's sex life is strained, and Cora is a recent mother who's medicating with anti-depressants. None of that's an uncommon scenario, but there's no clear indicator to explain her fit of rage that earns Frankie Belmont (Eric Todd) seven speed holes and a casket.
No, the guesswork of this 'whydunnit' falls to us and the unusually-interested Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), the only local cop who sees this case as anything but a slam-dunk. Like Cora, though, the good detective is a cipher with many worrying layers. Played with grizzled gravitas by Pullman, Ambrose displays obsessive tendencies and unorthodox interview approaches. His home-life is divided evenly between desperately trying to reconcile with his estranged wife and relapsing into the clutches of his dominatrix mistress. Despite his conflicting goals and idiosyncrasies, Ambrose manages to snag a thread and slowly unravel Cora's dark, forgotten past.
We'll not go too deep here, but the first clue involves that old bible-belt chestnut: a fanatically religious mother figure. And we're not talking about a positive family faith experience that's in anyway like Biel's role in that 90's christian drama, 7th Heaven; Cora is the pariah in this shame-oriented household, manipulated by her sickly younger sister and parents both. Biel absolutely nails the nuances and tension of this lost soul and, as the mini-series progresses, smash-cut flashbacks to Cora's less-than-ideal childhood increase in frequency and intensity. A warning to the squeamish: it gets pretty graphic.
If you have the stomach for some confronting television, The Sinner is a ride well worth taking. Unlike most thrillers out there, none of the kooks in this carnival of characters ever slip into extreme and unbelievable states. What you get to see are a lot of flawed parents and unfortunate children doing the best they can in messed-up circumstances. Feeling guilt and shame and the consequences of not dealing well with either of those emotions are key themes here.
That said, and though The Sinner handles the subject matter believably and with aplomb, it can go a little overboard with the flashbacks, both in terms of repetition. And that's not to say the depiction of the trauma is inaccurate. Full kudos has to go to showrunner Derek Simonds for authentically reproducing the effects of the performance PTSD psychosis, and moment-of-trauma reenacting.
The Sinner very quickly becomes a must-binge proposition and the twisty-turny narrative manages to maintain that pace until the bitter end. Unfortunately, once you get to the last episode, the more perceptive viewers out there will spot one or two plot holes. Nothing series-breaking; just some eyebrow-raisers related to a lack of previous police reporting and paternal follow-through that erode a little bit of an otherwise solid high concept.