USA’s The Sinner positions itself firmly as a whydunit rather than a whodunit. Adapted from Petra Hammesfahr’s novel of the same name, the limited series explores the collective bewilderment that ensues when a young mother, Cora (Jessica Biel), inexplicably commits a murder in broad daylight just after attempting to drown herself in Lake Minnewaska. Neither she nor anyone else can identify the reasons behind her sudden act of violence, and the series soon recedes from this grisly inciting event into an atmospheric and mostly understated unpacking of one woman’s complicated history.
Antonio Campos, who directed the first few episodes, conjures as much empathy for Cora as he did for doomed TV reporter Christine Chubbuck in last year’s Christine. His careful approach in that film refuses to reduce Chubbuck to her suicide; he doesn’t point to her depression or any other single factor as the reason she ended her life, and he handles Cora’s evidently varied struggles with a similar degree of sensitivity and nuance. His camera often tracks behind Cora as she walks and frames her mournful stares in close-up, seeming to regard her with equal suspicion and compassion.
Biel’s hollow-eyed silence and stiff body language at once evoke Cora’s fears and guilt. When Cora’s husband, Mason (Christopher Abbott), visits her in prison, she tells him she never thought she would have a normal life, and Biel’s subtle, teary-eyed delivery exudes the pain of someone who’s reservedly accepted her horrible situation. Her sullen face hints at the psychological burden of decades of buried trauma. It’s in prison that Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) strenuously grills Cora for a motive, but he isn’t some stock bully; from his furrowed brow to the rasp of his anger, he could be a proxy for an entire small town desperately clutching the fragments of its shattered idyllic façade. If he could only uncover her intentions, maybe normalcy would be restored to this sleepy corner of upstate New York.
Some of The Sinner’s narrative and aesthetic elements unsubtly allude to the notion of Cora being afflicted with mental illness, like the Rorschach-esque inkblot animations that accompany the show’s title card, which morph around Cora’s face as if to invite us to question her sanity. Recurring dreamlike images—a backlit overhead shot of Cora swimming in Lake Minnewaska, and murky glimpses of strange patterned wallpaper, shadow-obscured figures, and a staunch Catholic parent—comprise an earnest but caricatured representation of traumatic memory. For every legitimate depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder, like a song that triggers Cora, there’s a scene—notably one in which Ambrose intentionally plays that specific piece of music to instigate Cora’s response—that skews toward sensationalism.
At one point, Cora tells Mason, “I think there’s something wrong with me,” and the hints at her recent and more distant past compound the overt indicators that a series of horrifying events befell her. The who and the what of Cora’s troubles will spell why she did what she did, but the narrative encounters some inconsistency as it unpacks the particularities of Cora’s experience. The series depicts the realities of living with trauma most honestly when it leans toward attributing Cora’s behavior to a culmination of physical and psychological suffering. But when The Sinner turns to the investigation and the courtroom, its shifty execution only serves to demonize Cora and reaffirm harmful stereotypes of mental illness as source of irrationality and violence.