The Sinner, produced by and starring Jessica Biel, and based on the novel by Petra Hammesfhar, is the sensational new Netflix Original mini-series that audiences are loving. With news of the opening episode’s shocking murder scene going viral, the success of the show has surpassed the expectations of those behind it.
Starring Jessica Biel as Cora Tannetti, The Sinner follows her on what seems like any other day with her family. Spending some time at the beach, a group of young couples catch Cora’s eye, and suddenly, without explanation, she kills one of them in a seemingly random fit of rage. In charge of Cora’s case is Detective Ambrose (Bill Pullman), who invests all of his energy into proving there is an explanation for Cora’s gruesome act of murder. Cora’s husband Mason (Christopher Abbott), despite distraught with his wife, also won’t stop until he figures out the reason behind what she’s done.
The first episode does a lot of work to draw you in. Opening episodes usually begin slowly, setting up the show and the foundations towards a big climax. Here, the murder and who did it is revealed instantly, and we go on to find out more of her back story – you might expect this to diffuse the tension, but the shock value is what makes this show so worthwhile and different. There may not be over the top violence or graphic gore, but the juxtaposition between the family setting and a sudden act of murder flips the show on its head before it’s out of the gates.
It’s clear Cora has some past trauma from the offset, with a sense of unease in her general demeanour, but it is not clear how this is linked to the killing. The show is split roughly in half between the present day, and Cora’s childhood and teenage years.
What unfolds throughout the season is a very cleverly constructed mystery, and it dips in and out of whether Cora is a reliable narrator to her own acts and memories. Similar to Memento, the audience must use the disjointed memories of the protagonist to figure things out.
The performances in The Sinner are believable and the one that surprises us the most is that of Bill Pullman’s. He has come back into the spotlight with a look of wisdom and experience, and his role as the aging detective whose own life is falling to pieces really plays into his new-found strengths and look.
Christopher Abbott, probably best known for his role as Charlie in Girls, comes into his own. He is nothing but believable and relateable as the everyday man who has suffered inexplicable trauma. He represents the audience by answering the question of “what would you do?”.
The themes of Catholicism and religion are what brings depth to the show. From the start, we are led to believe that Cora is the ‘sinner’, but as things unfold, so many other possibilities open up. It contains a lot of instances of God punishing those who act immorally, especially Cora, but this isn’t necessarily the underlying message of the show. It uses the religious element to drive the story but without forcing it down the audience’s throats.
The best thing about The Sinner is that it’s able to keep us guessing until the very end – a rare achievement these days. The reliability of Cora Tannetti is constantly under scrutiny, the agendas of other characters are never fully clear either and therefore the mystery remains until the credits rolls. You can tell the writers were allowed to get creative with Hammesfhar’s source material in the way they could portray the unravelling of the plot on screen, and it makes for a beautifully constructed piece of storytelling.
It’s unclear whether we will get Season 2 of The Sinner, seeing as the entire novel has been adapted for the series, but the sheer success of the show has got the production team wondering if they could perhaps expand the characters or go on the anthology route. To leave it as a one off would be satisfying enough, but the characters are strong enough that extending the story around them would certainly work too.
We give The Sinner the full 5* for proving the mystery genre isn’t dead, and for making audiences think again.
The Sinner Season 1 is available on Netflix now.