The devil is in the de­tails of this twisty ‘why­dunit’

Jes­sica Biel shines in an am­bi­tious, arty if not wholly con­vinc­ing ‘The Sin­ner.’


The pres­ence of Jes­sica Biel, who is not of­ten on tele­vi­sion, is the main point of in­ter­est in “The Sin­ner,” a twisty new thriller be­gin­ning Wed­nes­day on USA. Bill Pull­man, who is even more of a movie star — in gen­er­ally bet­ter re­viewed movies — is in it too, rasp­ing and squint­ing in his spe­cial way.

But Biel, who is also an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of the se­ries, is the rea­son to watch. She gives a com­mit­ted per­for­mance, mea­sured even in its re­quired ex­tremes, one that the film’s doggedly arty ex­e­cu­tion and re­lent­less creepi­ness do not keep from reg­is­ter­ing as gen­uine.

Adapted in eight episodes by Derek Si­monds from a 1999 novel by Ger­man crime writer Pe­tra Hammes­fahr, it fo­cuses on Cora Tan­netti (Biel), a seem­ingly or­di­nary woman with a hus­band (Christo­pher Ab­bott), small child and in­ter­fer­ing mother-in-law, man­ag­ing her fa­ther-in-law’s heat­ing busi­ness in a leafy small town in up­state New York. Be­fore too many min­utes have elapsed, we are given hints that some­thing is not quite right with Cora; even her clean­li­ness is next to omi­nous.

And then, all of a sud­den, in front of a pack of wit­nesses, she com­mits what net­work press ma­te­ri­als cir­cum­spectly call “a star­tling act of vi­o­lence.” (It cer­tainly star­tled me.) Cora’s seem­ing lack of mo­tive and re­fus-

al or in­abil­ity to de­fend her­self, nags at Det. Harry Am­brose (Pull­man), who likes there to be rea­sons for things; even as Cora hur­tles to­ward a guilty plea, he presses her for in­for­ma­tion. This is a why­dunit.

“Me com­ing here is not go­ing to stop un­til I hear some­thing out of you that makes sense,” he tells her. (“Here” is jail.) But there are holes in Cora’s mem­ory, pa­pered over with in­ven­tion.

Am­brose comes with is­sues of his own; a shaky mar­riage, some psy­cho-sex­ual bag­gage that ap­pears to have been added just to give Pull­man some­thing to act be­yond go­ing around ask­ing ques­tions like a bearded Joe Fri­day.

He has been given an in­ter­est in flora, as well — he no­tices that the pine trees across the lake are blighted and that the rub­ber plant in the cor­ner isn’t get­ting enough light, and drops a line about “an ecosys­tem out of balance,” in which I sup­pose you are free to read deeper mean­ings. But it feels sta­pled onto the char­ac­ter, frankly, rather than some­thing ris­ing from within.

There are flash­backs and vi­sions aplenty as Cora re­mem­bers or re­con­structs her past. Much of what feeds her trauma feels a lit­tle too fa­mil­iar. A child­hood de­formed by re­li­gious fa­nati­cism? Step right in. (This se­ries is called “The Sin­ner,” re­mem­ber.) Many view­ers will have pro­nounced “PTSD” to them­selves well be­fore any­one in the se­ries gets around to it. And will that weird pat­terned im­age they keep show­ing us turn out to be wall­pa­per in some room where some­thing hap­pened? A life­time of movies says it will.

But who knows? Only the first three hours were avail­able for re­view. What’s more, the nar­ra­tive plan, es­tab­lished fairly quickly, is that one rev­e­la­tion can­cels out the last. With five hours to go, there could be a lot of re­vi­sion ahead.

Di­rec­tor An­to­nio Cam­pos is good with his ac­tors, but he has set them in a frame too fancy by half. With an ob­ses­sive use of shal­low fo­cus, the most mun­dane sub­ject looks like it be­longs in a fash­ion spread or high­end travel mag­a­zine. Even the po­lice pho­tos, of Cora cov­ered in blood, have an arty cast to them.

At the same time, Si­monds’ stabs at or­di­nary con­ver­sa­tion feel stilted and forced; he re­sorts, for in­stance, to the com­mon gam­bit of hav­ing his char­ac­ters briefly talk about food (cook­ing pork, ar­ti­sanal dough­nuts, or­der­ing salad in­stead of fries) be­fore mov­ing quickly back to ad­vanc­ing the plot. Biel, Ab­bott and Pull­man do have good scenes to­gether, but other char­ac­ters feel thin and func­tional and the world that con­tains them more con­structed than dis­cov­ered.

One el­e­ment that does seem ad­mirably mat­ter of fact is the por­trayal of the po­lice. No­body bangs a desk; no sub­or­di­nates are threat­ened. Apart from Am­brose, who has is­sues, they are busi­nesslike and calm. The pris­oner is treated with pro­fes­sional cour­tesy. And un­like many dra­mas in which char­ac­ters be­come tabloid no­to­ri­ous, none here makes too big a fuss about the press; they just do what they need to do to avoid them. It’s re­fresh­ing.

What­ever its faults, “The Sin­ner” does present a puz­zle; it has a cer­tain grav­i­ta­tional pull. One wants to see it through, or at least find the point where one no longer wishes to. And Biel is re­ally very good. She’s been de-glam­or­ized here — not like Char­l­ize Theron in “Mon­ster,” but stripped of the cos­metic elab­o­ra­tions the cul­ture still ex­pects from fe­male celebri­ties. The sim­plic­ity suits her.

robert.lloyd@la­ Twit­ter: @LATimesTVLloyd

Brownie Har­ris USA Net­work

JES­SICA BIEL is a seem­ingly or­di­nary woman with a hus­band (Christo­pher Ab­bott) and child in “Sin­ner.”

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