'The Sinner' Transcends the Procedural Genre With Complex Narrative and Performances

Jessica Biel offers a great performance as Cora in The Sinner (Photo Credit: USA Network/Peter Kramer).

The Sinner, a sad, stunning exploration of trauma, starts with a killer hook and goes deep.

The Sinner

Airtime: Wednesdays, 10pm
Cast: Bill Pullman, Jessica Biel, Christopher Abbott
Subtitle: Season 1
Network: USA
Year: 2017

One of the marks of a great television season is that it ends up somewhere completely different than where it started, suggesting none of its characters will be the same, and the world of the series has fundamentally shifted once the finale comes to a close. The latest example of this principle at work is USA Network's stunning and surprising sleeper hit The Sinner: a mini-series that took a salacious premise and wrestled it away from its soapy trappings to tell a sad story about how past mistakes can poison the present.

The Sinner kicks off with a delicious hook. Cora Tinnetti (Jessica Biel) is a happy housewife with a successful husband, Mason (Christopher Abbott), and a young son. During a casual day-trip to the beach, Cora is distracted by the sound of familiar music she can't place, and can't stop herself from staring at a stranger who's involved in a romantic entanglement with his girlfriend. Within seconds, before anybody can intervene, Cora throws herself at the stranger, stabs him multiple times in the neck, and demands that he "get off" his girlfriend.

The strangers' wounds are fatal, and Cora quietly agrees to be detained by the police. Despite hours of intense interrogation, Cora can't explain her actions, her connection to the victim, or offer up any motive. The police see this as an open-and-shut-case once Cora pleads guilty, but Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) -- a grizzled, personally troubled detective -- sees inconsistencies in the official story. A deep wound in Cora's head, needle marks in her arms, and a murky history that nobody can explain pushes Harry to delve into a world of mystery and crime that he couldn’t have imagined.

Building a show around such an intriguing premise is dangerous because it can render the narrative a machine: delivering answers and twists without offering space for the characters to grow and reveal themselves. It's easy to imagine a version of The Sinner that offered shocks and schlock whilst hurtling towards the final twist, neatly tying up the story after a series of well-timed revelations throughout the season. That alone could've been a zeitgeist-capturing show, but The Sinner that aired was more interested in pulling apart the emotional experiences of the protagonists, tackling the thorny issues of familial responsibility and undiagnosed trauma. Each twist and turn served to deepen the story and add an emotional layer to the proceedings, culminating in a series of reveals that pulled off the neat trick of coming across as both inevitable and startling.

The pilot episode, whilst visually striking and emotionally jarring, didn't fully suggest how deeply the episodes would dive into Cora and Harry's interior lives. Somewhat uniquely for a prestige drama, the series offered more than it initially promised; the journey was equally enjoyable as the destination. Cora's act of violence was shockingly rendered and deeply upsetting -- rarely has the sight of blood seemed so incongruous with the environment around it -- the crimson splashed against the sand, and the joyful sunbathers was a staggering image. Whilst subsequent episodes dabbled in violence; the focus quickly shifted to Cora's personal history and her inability to remember the narrative of her own life.

Stepping away from the who-done-it to the why-done-it format was one of the smartest ways in which The Sinner distinguished itself; it raised the narrative stakes without having to spend precious time setting up viable red herrings and other genre clichés. Much of the first half of the season focused on Cora’s restrictive upbringing, particularly that her younger sister Phoebe (Nadia Alexander) was born with a bizarre and debilitating condition that inspired her mother Elizabeth (Enid Graham) to become fanatically, dangerously religious. While it's become a cliché for shows to equate strict religious belief with repression and villainy, The Sinner at least tried to suggest how religion became a structure and routine through which Elizabeth believes her youngest child can gain vitality: personal empowerment combined with personal punishment. Graham's performance shapes Elizabeth as both desperate and frightening; believing that a higher power will change their circumstances, while simultaneously believing that the lack of intervention is down to the family's sinful ways.

Alexander also does a fantastic job of revealing the vibrancy of a person who's spent her whole life dreaming of things she'll never be able to do. There's palpable, and dangerous, intensity to her desire to throw herself into the world; being bedridden has made her believe that life is a zero-sum game, and Alexander adroitly reveals the velocity of someone who's decided to have everything because having nothing is such a real and looming possibility. Through a series of reveals, it becomes obvious that Phoebe spent years pushing Cora to save money so that they can be free of their parents and the childhood home that's become a torture chamber.

In the present time, once Cora has admitted guilt for the crime -- against Mason's better judgment -- the show primarily shifts into an extended fact-finding mission. Harry learns that Cora admitted herself into a drug rehabilitation facility (although when asked, she can't explain how to prepare the heroin she was supposedly addicted to), a bystander swears that Cora's victim looked at Cora with familiarity and acceptance, and Cora remembers being kept in an expensive country club. It's to The Sinner's credit that these reveals never make the series appear as a rote procedural; that is, there's no sense of box ticking. The narrative flows naturally enough that none of the clues or discoveries seemed coincidental, except perhaps the one involving a baby in the last ten minutes of the series.

There's some vague suggestion early on that Cora may be duping everyone; it quickly becomes clear, however, that Cora is missing the memories of a significant chunk of her life. It's here that The Sinner reveals itself as sensitive and revelatory: Cora's trauma is always taken seriously, and her plight is never offered up for a salacious thrill or for a visual spectacle. As the episodes progress, it becomes clearer that early trauma led Cora to look for love in places and people that couldn't provide it, but who would happily use her neediness to increase their sense of power. As per example, Phoebe's insistence on living through Cora -- a suffocating responsibility that renders Cora a cipher for others' experiences -- leads Cora to J. D. (Jacob Pitts), a drug dealer who promises her everything and, predictably, offers nothing.

When the audience eventually discovers what happened it's truly sad; a mistake was made and, in a desperate attempt to cover it up for their child, a parent made a series of even more awful mistakes. Cora was a victim of a vast gas-lighting scheme that was both grandiose and very human: elaborate in execution but rooted in a father's desperate attempts to secure his child's happiness and prosperity. The Sinner isn't shy about suggesting that Cora was easily manipulated because of her lower socioeconomic class -- the recurring image of a hyper-exclusive private members' club becomes chilling -- and her gender. Indeed, it's hard to visualize a gender-flipped version of this story working as effectively; the show's writers take pains to show how society can buffet woman in ways that force them to disregard their own life stories. The final reveal shows just how keenly interested the show was on the tipping point between parental protection and parental imprisonment; Cora's parents all but signed their daughter's death warrant, which in turn resulted in the deaths of many others.

It isn't usually a compliment to describe a performance as opaque, but Biel is revelatory here; she's excellent at suggesting a woman who sees herself as purely a projection of those around her. It could've been a hollow performance -- after all, how do you portray a person whose main character trait is their lack of personality -- but Biel neatly demonstrates Cora attempts to hoard experiences and emotions in the hopes of emerging as a three-dimensional person. It's also a performance that conveys real hopefulness as well as desperation: Cora goes from a person who believes she's a motiveless killer to one who discovers she may have a life after her hideous actions.

Pullman is given the less interesting role in many ways; Harry is the damaged, roguish detective that serves as the prototype for most television detectives. The Sinner does provide him with an ailing marriage, which allows Pullman to explore some of the more difficult aspects of the character, and there are more than few suggestions that Harry experienced childhood abuse that lead him into a BDSM-infused extramarital affair. Pullman is always watchable and offers a confident, committed performance, but it would've been nice to see a unique character.

Ultimately, The Sinner managed to provide both a steadfastly told and sad story of inter-generational abuse and disempowerment and a slick, edgy thriller about buried secrets. In taking the emotional stakes of the story seriously, the show was able to be exciting and expansive, specific and universal. As Cora learns what happened to her, and gains the ability to imagine a better version of a life she was convinced was already over, The Sinner pretty convincingly argued that taking time to understand your history, as well as those of the people around you, is both a radical and necessary act.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.