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 refusal 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 high-end 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.
When: 10 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd