J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Tribeca ’17: The Sinner (pilot)

Meursault from Camus’s The Stranger would understand. You’re at the beach, its hot, so you just kill some random dude. However, Cora Tanner does it in front of her husband and several dozen horrified witnesses. She would have the world believe she did it in a moment of madness, but the grizzled detective in charge suspects Tanner had more personal motivations than the Imp of Perverse in Antonio Campos pilot for The Sinner (trailer here), which premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, in advance of its USA network broadcast.

Tanner has a domineering mother-in-law and a weak momma’s husband. She works all day at the family business, then she and the spineless Mason pick-up their toddler from his parent’s house, where they have dinner, before turning in for the night in their next-door home. We wouldn’t blame her for killing someone, but we have to question her choice of victim.

Granted, his girlfriend was being kind of obnoxious, but it was the entitled young man-about-town whom Tanner Ginsu-ed up like a vintage 1980s slasher-killer. She immediately confesses, but says little else. She implies it was a case of temporary insanity, but refuses to say anything to establish her case. It all makes slightly pervy Det. Harry Ambrose deeply suspicious. He is determined to sniff out some sort of motive before Tanner’s guilty plea seals her fate, but nobody wants to help him—least of all Tanner.

Again, The Sinner shows the challenges of showcasing episodic work at film festivals. The pilot is definitely cinematic, as one might expect from a stylist like Campos and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, who has considerable film credits as a DP and a director of his own projects. However, it just feels like it barely began when the forty-five minutes are up. Granted, that can and probably should be taken as a good sign, but it would have been nice for audience members to have a chance to see more of the give and take between the series two biggest stars, Jessica Biel and Bill Pullman playing Tanner and Ambrose, before the post-screening panel discussion.

Still, the pilot ends with some promising revelations—or rather more accurately, hints of revelations. It definitely leaves viewers intrigued and wanting to see more of the mystery unspool. However, you can live a full and satisfying life without watching Bill Pullman (who happened to star in the Broadway production of The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?) engaging in a d/s humiliation session with his ex-mistress.

Be that as it may, Pullman is mostly very good as the haggard but incisively intelligent Ambrose. It is also impressive how thoroughly Biel glammed down to play Tanner. She just looks like an average person in Sinner, except when she is drenched in blood splatter. However, even at her Plain Janest, it is hard to believe Biel’s Tanner is hitched to the putzy Mason and his sad excuse for a beard, played with tiresome whininess by Christopher Abbott.

Based on the German novel by Petra Hammesfahr, The Sinner pilot suggests it will offer a few twists on the unreliable narrator “Girl” thrillers, while providing the staples fans of the sub-sub-genre enjoy. Even with that awkward bit, the pilot shows potential, but it is still hard to judge whether the entire series should be recommended when the first season starts August 2 on USA, following its special screening at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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