The Sinner is an American crime drama focusing on a young woman (Jessica Biel) who commits a seemingly inexplicable crime and the detective (Bill Pullman) who works hard to explain it. It was based on a novel by Petra Hammesfahr, created by Christopher Abbott and co-produced by Jessica Biel. It was broadcast in the USA on USA Network in August/September 2017, and then made available to the rest of the world through Netflix.
At the start of The Sinner, we are introduced to the Tannetti family: Cora (Jessica Biel), Mason (Christopher Abbott, It Comes at Night) and toddler Laine. The couple spends their days working for Mason’s father’s air conditioning business, while Mason’s mother looks after their son. They are unassuming types, very family focused and inward-looking, though likable. After three years, Cora is itching for a little time away from in-laws, and so they take a day out at the beach with Laine.
Something about her is a little off-kilter that day, but it’s still a massive surprise when she jumps up with a paring knife and repeatedly stabs the man relaxing with his girlfriend on a towel twenty feet away. That’s just in the first fifteen minutes of the show.
There are eye-witnesses everywhere, there is no denying Cora carried out this attack, but no-one – not even Cora herself – knows why she did it. It seems to the police who first pick it up that there is nothing to investigate, but then Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) suggests there simply had to be a reason for the stabbing, and Cora Tannetti is doing herself an injustice by not raising any defense. The rest of The Sinner follows Ambrose on his journey into Cora’s past and the people she knew, to identify what triggered her brutal assault on an apparent stranger. Along that journey, we encounter illness, deep faith, coming of age, love, trauma, and resilience. And it is absolutely gripping.
Given the names and careers to date of the lead actors, you may be expecting light or low-brow entertainment. If so, The Sinner will surely surprise you: this is Pullman’s best role to date, a mature study of a man who is aching to do things right. I am less familiar with Biel, but have to say her character (and interaction with others) was thoroughly believable and sympathetic; even when her actions and words could not be explained, they were easy to accept. Indeed she was nominated for a Golden Globe for her role as Cora.
And it is interesting too to have watched and reviewed The Sinner directly after Requiem: what a contrast! The Sinner is intelligent, thoughtful and takes its time, like Mindhunter or True Detective; yet still in a style of its own. The Sinner is the perfect antidote to the mediocre Requiem: mystery paired with vulnerability and intrigue, rather than paranoia and scandal. There are some similarities with Requiem, especially the use of flashbacks at the end of most of the episodes; but they are used with much more care in this case. In fact, I would say this is the quality of thriller that Requiem liked to think it was.
The soundtrack was applied with care, too. A piece of music had an important function in the plot at one point, but apart from that the soundtrack was kept subtle for the most part, and only used to enforce the atmosphere a couple of times. Cinematography, too, was sharp without being flashy; this could be any family in any town, after all. But what really worked was the weaving of all the threads together; the central character, her personality, and influences, her past and present. And the secondary characters, along with the breadth and soul that they present too. The music and camera work back that up, of course, but the astute writing and precise direction make The Sinner the show that it is.
I am so glad to be looking back at The Sinner in its entirety, rather than one episode at a time. The broad perspective reveals such compassion and emotional insight. The title might not refer to the main character alone, as it turns out; it could be nearly any of them. The character study that is The Sinner shows that everyone is flawed, and there’s a real sense that no-one should be judged too hastily. Indeed, I would suggest the series is more about the paired concepts of guilt and sin than about any one character. But you know, there is an argument that the sinner of the title is Ambrose (especially considering a conversation he has towards the end with Cora about guilt). And that would be a terrific lever to creating a second series with him as the link.