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‘The Sinner’

We enjoyed The Sinner, the eight-part drama about a woman, Cora (Jessica Biel), who, unprovoked, violently murders a young man on a beach, in front of her family, his friends, and dozens of strangers. The remainder of the hours are Bill Pullman’s detective trying to help her remember what happened in her past to cause this attack, despite the Disapproval Of His Superiors and His Personal Troubles.

I’d watch pretty much anything with Bill Pullman in because I enjoy his characters who can discover what no one else can thanks to his ability to squint at things beyond the edges of the frame. He can squint thoughtfully better than anyone. He is so good at squinting that what was going to be a single-season drama has a second season in which he presumably squints his way to solving a different case.

Unsurprisingly, season one’s mysteries are solved in the end, and the intervening episodes are spent inching towards resolution via a few dead-ends and many, many flashbacks representing Cora slowly remembering her past. Flashbacks are used so often these days that I sometimes think they’re used merely to make a conventional drama seem more complex than it is, although here they did feel like a legitimate representation of Cora slowly remembering her past.

I also wondered when flashbacks were first used as a film/TV technique; like everything other than single camera footage with no cuts, audience must have had to learn what they meant, that this wasn’t a scene continuing directly from the previous one. Presumably on-screen titles or explanatory voice-overs helped. Anyway, Wikipedia says:

The creator of the flashback technique in cinema was Histoire d’un crime directed by Ferdinand Zecca in 1901. Flashbacks were first employed during the sound era in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 film City Streets, but were rare until about 1939 when, in William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights as in Emily Brontë’s original novel, the housekeeper Ellen narrates the main story to overnight visitor Mr. Lockwood, who has witnessed Heathcliff’s frantic pursuit of what is apparently a ghost. More famously, also in 1939, Marcel Carné’s movie Le Jour Se Lève is told almost entirely through flashback: the story starts with the murder of a man in a hotel. While the murderer, played by Jean Gabin, is surrounded by the police, several flashbacks tell the story of why he killed the man at the beginning of the movie.

Here, flashbacks make up so much of the show that they often seemed as if they were merely delaying the inevitable climax. While I like the extra time TV dramas often get these days, giving room for slowness and complexity, they do sometimes feel like they’re a little dragged out. I began losing patience part-way through — the ride was no longer quite interesting enough and I wanted to jump straight to the destination. Still, we did want to get there and liked it enough that we’ll give the second season of The Squinter a go.

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