Binge-r #82: The Sinner + SS-GB + Don't Think Twice
THE SINNER S1
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All eight episodes now streaming
This deceptive American mystery – which has a smooth, familiar surface and an undertow of psychological and sexual turmoil – is not a whodunit but a whydunit. Early on in the first episode, young wife and mother Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel) interrupts a family outing to an upstate New York lake to stab nearby medical student Frankie Belmont (Eric Todd) to death with the knife she was using to prepare her infant son’s snack. “I just did it and I don’t know why,” Cora tells the first police on the scene, which is only true until the flashbacks start. What’s so engaging about Derek Simonds adaptation of Petra Hammesfahr’s German novel is how it reveals the truth in a timely yet unexpected manner.
The journey clarifies the destination in this telling, which also profits from an economical eight episodes. The plotting quickly does away with red herrings to dig into Cora’s past, focusing on a crucial two month period in 2012 when she was missing before being deposited at a rehabilitation clinic. The early episodes are very good at capturing her sense of disassociation both before and after she kills Frankie: shallow focus close-ups and a tumbling camera suggest what a psychiatrist assessing her competency to stand trial confirms, that Cora’s suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Her ally in finding the truth is not her husband, Mason (Christopher Abbott), who has always been fearful of what his wife’s unknown depths contain, but an obsessive police detective, Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), whose own marriage has collapsed as he takes harsh pleasure in being a submissive in a masochistic affair. The narrative mostly avoids wallowing in sexual violence against women, slowly defining Cora through a pious upbringing at the hands of a zealous mother, Elizabeth Lacey (Enid Graham), who was obsessed with Christian righteousness as a way of keeping alive Cora’s sickly sister, Phoebe (Nadia Alexander).
Figures who have familiar outlines, such as a charismatic drug dealer Cora falls in with prior to her disappearance, J.D. (Jacob Pitts), have unpredictable angles – he’s capable of being in turn understanding, liberating, and menacing. This is the most layered, sustained performance Jessica Biel has delivered (no, I’m not accepting Blade: Trinity as an alternative) and what she does, as much with subtle reactions as definable acts, is allow The Sinner to draw together a portrait of a life that has foundered for genuine reasons instead of just sketching an explanation. There are a lot of generic murder mysteries streaming these days, but this is not one of them.
In Brief: SS-GB (Stan): The success of Amazon’s compelling alternate history The Man in the High Castle, where a conquered American is divided between a victorious Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan after World War II, made the case for this BBC adaptation of Len Deighton’s 1978 novel, where Londoners have to come to grips with Hitler’s occupying forces. Douglas Archer (Sam Riley) is the Scotland Yard detective now answering to a German commander, and he treads a line between duty, defiance and collaboration that invariably becomes strained when a murder investigation reveals a conspiracy about nuclear secrets. The series has a physical sense of conquest, although it puts aside the telling minor details of what it means to fall under totalitarian rule in favour of the high-level deceit that involves an American reporter, Barbara Barga (Kate Bosworth) and a menacing SS overseer, Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger). SS-GB is a tidy thriller that at its best pricks the line between morality and mere survival.
>> Other Reading: One of the best new shows this year is Netflix’s German mystery Babylon Berlin, a sprawling thriller set in 1929 that has both history’s power and contemporary resonance. I wrote about it in depth for The Monthly [full story here].
Don’t Think Twice (Netflix, 2016, 92 minutes): One of the guiding tenets of improvised comedy you’re told at the start of this astute observed comedy, is to agree to reality and build on it. But in this story of a New York improv troupe just successful enough to reach for a career, reality ends up dismantling what they thought they had. Everything changes for The Commune when one member, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), gets an audition for a Saturday Night Live-style network television show: his ambition stirs up the group’s insecure founder, Mike (Mike Birbiglia), and worries his girlfriend, Sam (Gillian Jacobs), who wants nothing to change. “This is a victory for the group,” Jack insists, one of many lines that excruciatingly reveals the opposite of what it claims. This is Birbiglia’s second feature, after 2012’s autobiographical debut Sleepwalk With Me, and as a successful comic he captures the dynamic of funny people having to deal with unfortunate realities; there are pauses here that are heartbreaking. At the centre of it is Jacobs, whose Sam is the most talented performer of them all. Without histrionics she powerfully suggests the dilemma of an insecure artist unsure of what their brilliance requires.
New on Netflix: A dystopian comedy of gloriously deadpan dimensions, The Lobster (2015, 118 minutes) turns relationships into a bureaucratic nightmare as Rachel Weisz, Colin Farrell and Lea Seydoux deliver the distinct vision of Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos; Godzilla (2014, 123 minutes) is an exemplary monster mash-up: restrained, photo-realistic, frighteningly vast.
New on SBS On Demand: Moral murkiness and scrupulous attention to character make Kelly Richardt’s Night Moves (2013, 112 minutes), a drama about a trio of environmental activists played by Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard plotting to blow up a dam, a fascinating drama.
New on Stan: A horror film that turns a post-apocalyptic thriller into something more sinister and suggestive, It Comes at Night (2017, 92 minutes) stars Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo as parents who allow another family into their fortified home; Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell turn the end of the American dream into a crazed comedy with the suburban excess of The House (2017, 89 minutes).
>> Want BINGE-R sent to your inbox? Click here for the weekly e-mail.