Wednesday, August 2, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Sinner' - Cora Loses Control Which Completely Changes Her Entire Life in 'Part I'

USA's The Sinner - Episode 1.01 "Part I"

An unassuming housewife violently stabs a beachgoer to death sparking an investigation by local police and sudden confusion in a small town.

The Sinner has such a command of tone and story in its opening episode. "Part I" just sets out to unnerve the audience. To make the people watching question why we are watching and why the actual events are occurring. It flips the script on the traditional murder mystery. A crime is committed in the series premiere. It prompts an investigation that is bound to unearth shocking details about the people of this community. And yet, the mystery of who committed the crime doesn't exist. Cora stabbed a man to death while she was at the beach with her family. She's the lead character of this show. Almost everything the audience experiences is through her perspective. We see her as she picks up the blade, walks over to the guy and stabs him multiple times. It's a disorienting experience. But the show doesn't want this to be a cut and dry case. She confesses to the crime and is willing to face her punishment. She doesn't want a lawyer because she doesn't believe anything can help her after what she did. She's made peace with going to jail and her family needing to move on without her. But the mystery of the show is why Cora did this. It's just as intriguing of a mystery as well. This opening episode presents a lot of different storytelling possibilities for the show to explore. It could all lead to an overwhelming sense of dread and isolation that finally burst within Cora. Or it could also just as easily be a bunch of red herrings that ultimately don't mean much in the grand scheme of things. This premiere just needs to whet the audience's appetite for this mystery and trying to understand why all of this happened.

Of course, it was clear long before Cora killed someone that something was slightly off in this story. The show doesn't immediately call attention to that fact with super dark and grim direction. It opens with a simple story of a woman in her every day life. She goes to work with her family and comes home to a simple meal with her in-laws. The biggest fight that she and her husband have is about the frequency with which they see his parents. On the surface, they seem like a happy couple content in life. But underneath the surface, there are flourishes that hint at inner darkness within Cora. She's regarded well in this community as a school teacher and volunteer. But she needs to take pills in order to fall asleep at night. She's disconnected from her husband, Mason, when they are being intimate. She instead stares off into space. A wallpaper like visual comes into focus. It appears several times throughout this premiere as Cora disassociates with her life. It's clearly an important detail of this story as it pertains to something in her past. Something that was probably very traumatizing for her as a child. Something that she repressed for all of these years but has still come to define her life. She breaks the rules in order to escape from this world. She's happy with her life. But she also wants to escape from it. That dichotomy shouldn't go together. And yet, it does because that's how Cora feels in the moments leading up to the tragic event that starts the series.

The attack on the beach is a very intricate scene. One that's going to be revisited multiple times over the course of the series as everyone searches for the hidden meaning behind it. The audience will probably want to reexamine it as well because of the very precise details. Some beats play as very obvious in their connection to the central crime. Others are more opaque and mysterious. It's clear that Cora is triggered into acting because of a certain song that the woman starts to play. It's only after that starts that Cora moves into action and delivers the fatal blows. But she was staring at this couple intensely long before the music came on. She was fixated on them. Was there some grand purpose for that? Or was it just innocent fascination with other people at the beach and how intimate they are willing to get while out in public? It's an interesting dilemma that doesn't present itself with an easy solution. Just like all of the other details that come out about this incident throughout the premiere. Everyone is forced to relive that moment and what they did and didn't do. Mason was able to rush in and pull Cora off the guy. But why did he need to do that? Was the guy simply not strong enough to overpower Cora? Did he know her somehow and understood why she wanted to kill him? Did the friends sit idly by for a reason? Did they just have slow reactions? Or did they want him dead as well? None of these questions have simple solutions. The show is going to explore all of them over the course of the season most likely. But they do build an overwhelming sense of dread and a feeling that one never truly knows what someone else is experiencing in this world.

Because again, Cora seems like just a regular and happy mother and wife. No one in this community would believe that she committed this crime. And yet, they can't deny it because they saw her do it. There is a strong case against her. But was she in the right mind and body to be found guilty and sent off to jail? Or was she in a delusional state? The words she shares during and after the attack hint at something more personal going on within her. Cora proves herself to be the greatest mystery of the show. She can be all of these things at one. That's the prism in which she operates. She can be a happy wife and mother. But she can also be deeply troubled and prone to a violent outburst like this. Mason wants to believe it was just a moment. A moment where she completely lost control and didn't know what she was doing. It probably won't be as simple as that though. He breaks down in the aftermath because he can't believe his wife would do this. He doesn't know how to be with her anymore even though he still loves her. He can't accept that she may be gone. He probably won't be able to deal with the fact that he never truly knew her either. When she's concerned about her family in the aftermath, it is genuine. She needs Mason to know when it's time to feed their child so he's not fussy during the night. But then, there's a completely different, almost animalistic side to her as well. That comes out during her first night in jail where she comes across almost as a drug addict going through withdrawal. She's spiraling because she feels trapped and no longer in control of her life. She needs her drugs and they are being withheld from her. She needs a break from this world and she won't be getting it anytime soon.

It's going to be up to Detective Harry Ambrose to make sense of all of this. He seems like a man capable enough because he's asking the right questions. He has a feeling that something isn't adding up in this case. He's putting in the work to properly explore all sides of this story no matter where it might lead him. He's not content with this being an open-and-shut story. He's fascinated by the why of it all as well. Of course, he comes across as a complicated man too. His story is way less subtle than what is going on with Cora. But it leads the show to an overall sense of intrigue and pursuit of control. Ambrose is a voyeur of sorts. He watches people from afar. People he's obsessed with. This case brings out his impulses once more. He has an outlet to channel these things though by visiting a dominatrix. That's the woman he was spying on earlier. It's him fully submitting to her orders. It's pleasurable for him. This is a part of his life he tries to keep closed off. His partner seems to know about it and is concerned about him. But he's also fine with Ambrose pursuing a long shot lead in the hopes that it could change perception of this case. He's working against a deadline. He needs proof to present to a judge in just under two hours. He doesn't seem to get there in time though. The show doesn't actually confirm that but it seems clear as the premiere cuts to black just as Cora is giving her plea. Ambrose largely just gets more questions than answers in his pursuit of the truth as well. He wants to know more. But the circumstances of this world and the job may keep him from actually doing any good in this investigation. That's an interesting angle for the show to pursue as well.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Part I" was written by Derek Simonds and directed by Antonio Campos.
  • There appears to be some kind of religious extremism going on in Cora's past. Flashbacks will prove to be very important in this story even though they are just cryptically teased throughout this premiere. It seems like she comes from a family that believes prayer and faith heals people instead of actual medicine. Her younger sister is gravely sick and at home instead of a hospital.
  • So much of Cora's story is about her internal struggle to properly express whatever it is she's feeling. She's internalized a lot of things that now produce violent actions. Jessica Biel does a phenomenal job in playing both sides of the character. She almost appears as a blank slate when she disassociates with world. But she's also a vicious animal when she does lose that control.
  • Mason is at a loss over how to feel about what his wife has just done. She is still his wife. She still loves him. But she committed murder right in front of him. He saw the couple as well. He heard the song. He thought nothing of it. But afterwards, he simply has no idea what to do or say. She always seemed like she loved order and control. But that may have been hiding something much darker.
  • The girlfriend of the guy Cora killed was taken to the hospital and forced to be sedated. As such, she's not helpful at all when Ambrose needs to talk to the people in the immediate vicinity of the attack. He needs to know exactly what Cora did and said in that moment in order to understand her mental state at the time.
  • The friend of the victim has a theory that seems absolutely crazy. And yet, it's a twist that happens near the end of the premiere - which usually hints at significant importance moving forward. He believes his friend saw Cora's face, recognized her and let her kill him. It's a belief that makes no sense at all. Cora claims not to know the guy. Is that the truth or a lie? It's the show once again forcing the audience to question everything.