"Big Little Lies" is a 7-hour Tour-De-Force of Trauma, Murder, & Stunning Imagery
HBO blurred the line between movies and tv with The Sopranos at the turn of the century. Big Little Lies, HBO's recent mom-noir miniseries, featuring movie-star calibre actors giving likely career-best performances and directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee, obliterates the line. It's artfully photographed, and complex where it counts – specifically in its depiction of domestic abuse. It clumsily veers into absurdly convenient territory during its climax and its characters are certainly “types” if not outright cliches, but I'll call this one a winner.
Like most drama-mystery novels you'll find at the airport, Big Little Lies begins with a murder. We don't know the circumstances of the death besides the fact that it happened on the night of the extravagant school fundraiser. Each episode cuts to someone who was present that evening. They speculate to the cops in excitedly hushed tones on what might've lead to the death, who might've been responsible, etc.. These gossipy residents function as a Greek Chorus of sorts, a way for writer David E. Kelley to drolly comment on the characters and foreshadow calamities. It's cute enough. But, really, the murder doesn't matter except as a framing device in which to tell a story.
Four mothers, Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Jane (Shailene Woodley), and Renata (Laura Dern), are connected through their kids attending the same school, “a private school at a public school price”. When Renata's daughter's neck is bruised and Jane's son Ziggy is fingered as the culprit, it sparks off a chain of feuds, old traumas resurfacing, and, gasp, the unspooling of the darkness beneath this picturesque setting of Monterey, California.
Despite some dialogue that attempts crispness with such single-mindedness that it ends up overcooked, (“You're intrinsically a nice person – I have a nose for those things” Madeline tells Jane), the layers are peeled back with precision as the story progresses; frightened, wounded souls are revealed to be the core of these intimidatingly good-looking people who seem to Have It All.
Witherspoon is tremendous and sympathetic as Madeline, a fire-cracker and uptight emotional terror who nurses old grudges like they're glasses of expensive red. In hands less deft, she'd be a shrill dragon lady, but Witherspoon is unafraid to bring of all her character's qualities, good and bad, to life with vivacity and dimensionality. Also tremendous is Laura Dern as Renata, a CEO who is alternately absurdly competitive in her compulsive indulgence in oneupmanship -- a backward-ass attempt to get everyone to like her -- and despairing in her powerlessness when she's unable to protect her daughter. They channel their rage and petty frustrations in ways that are often quite funny and destructive, and it makes for superficially entertaining tv. Their respective husbands, Ed (Adam Scott) and Jeffrey (Gordon Klein), are mostly orbital, not having much interiority beyond what's going on with their wives (you might say they have “the girlfriend” role, ha.). They provide an entertainingly down-to-earth contrast to Madeline and Renata's theatricality.
But where Big Little Lies draws much of its dramatic power is from Jane's and Celeste's enthralling storylines. Though they couldn't be more different – Celeste is a wealthy middle-aged painterly masterpiece of concealing physical and emotional scars, Jane is a comparatively broke young woman struggling to put on a brave face and get through a day – they're irrevocably bound by the same brutality done to them.
Celeste's husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) is charming, hopelessly in love with his wife and children – and a deeply sick abuser. At first his physical abuse is a kind of perverse foreplay which leads to satisfying sex for the both of them. When they're done, he's sobbing on her lap, the picture of shame and repentance. Until the bruises fade and the cycle begins anew. Skarsgard is scary and perversely watchable as this guy. His trademark Nordic icy-ness is used to brilliant effect when Perry's lingering insecurities rise to the surface. That, combined with their scenes of genuine domestic bliss completes a fascinating, textured portrait of living with a human time-bomb.
Jane's son Ziggy was revealed to have been the product of a tryst that quickly turned into a brutal rape. Jean-Marc Vallee's directorial prowess shine during the sequences where Jane relives that night. Elaborately imagined scenes of exacting revenge against her tormentor play out on a loop during unexpected moments. She often relives the rape with terrible clarity; it's heartbreakingly staged like she's observing the desecration of her body from a distance.
This is where Big Little Lies goes beyond “Prestige Soap Opera” and reveals itself to be a fraught narrative centred on women living, and negotiating with, the violence done to them. At times it's an irreconcilable concept – such as that Jane's worst night also gave her a kid she loves with all her heart, or that Perry's physical abuse is a key component to their exciting sex life. This is a challenging field to navigate thematically, ripe for the accidental endorsement of the most terrible kind of thinking, and it's admirable that Big Little Lies has the dignity to steadfastly refuse easy answers. There's the unexpected grace of catharsis too, because in Big Little Lies, the imperfect bonds of friendship offer a measure of solace. David E. Kelley paraphrases a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote here, which was also used in one of his previous shows, Boston Legal: "Friendship may well be reckoned with the masterpiece of nature". It seems quaint at first glance, not much more insightful than the treacle-y "Friendship is magic!" from that one kids show. But when it's rendered as earnestly and funnily as it is here, and from a point of view that's usually dismissed, it's impossible not to see "Friendship may well be reckoned with the masterpiece of nature" in a different light: Something that's demonstrably true and redemptive.
There are times when Vallee relies too heavily on his directorial bag of tricks that he deployed in Wild – like for instance the rapid cross-cutting of a silent traumatic flashback to juxtapose against a still present; it feels very comic-booky in the best way; regrettably it's overused here – and the dude is too in love with the obvious imagery of waves violently crashing against jagged rocks. And the twisty reveal at the end solidifies a thematic through-line with such a mindset of "DO YOU GET IT?" that it's hammer-to-the-skull subtle.
It's a well-acted and mostly well-written production though, and at a brisk 7 episodes, there's little time for things to drag. Just be prepared to roll your eyes a handful of times in between marvelling at most of the good stuff.