We’re used to seeing Jessica Biel on the big screen, and haven’t seen her regularly on TV since her days on saccharine drama 7th Heaven. She’s back, in a big way, on The Sinner, and this is a Biel you’ve never seen before.
Right off the bat, within 10 minutes of the start of the eight-episode limited series, Biel’s character Cora is stabbing a stranger at the beach. No one knows why, including Cora herself.
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All we learn pre-stabbing (unless you’ve read the book the series is based on) Cora is married to Mason (Christopher Abbott, Girls), and they have an infant son. She doesn’t have any clear motive, but she seems to be having several moments of disconnection from reality, made evident by her staring into space or swimming out too far in the lake.
As a thriller, The Sinner is addictive TV. It’s a true mystery, and you’re going to want to stick around to see what’s going on. Here are four things to know about The Sinner.
Jessica Biel is entirely convincing in the title role
Biel is about as far away as possible from the schmaltz of 7th Heaven on this show. Frequently she’s cast as the supporting role, the love interest or the romantic lead, so there hasn’t been much of an opportunity for her to show off her chops. They’re on full display here, whether it’s her umpteenth crying scene or her blank stare into the ether.
You have to master a wide range of emotions to play lead character Cora, and Biel is absolutely savage in her portrayal. Not afraid to look “ugly” (though for Biel, that’s a stretch), she plays the part of a tormented, confused soul to a tee.
A stellar supporting cast adds to the magic
Abbott has proven himself a worthy actor, and he works well next to Biel. He has the look of terror and shock down pat and is believable as the clueless husband trying to figure out why his wife would stab a stranger — if he is, in fact, a stranger — at the beach.
The best casting bonus of The Sinner has to be Bill Pullman as obsessed detective Harry Ambrose, who quickly gets swallowed by the case and is driven to solve it. We’ve seen Pullman play the U.S. president and other big roles, but he seems at home here as the small town detective, slowly putting the pieces together.
There’s something going on in Cora’s past
On its face, and again if you haven’t read the book, the story of The Sinner looks pretty straightforward: woman attacks stranger, no one knows why, and eventually the mystery is solved. There’s actually a lot more going on, and the show slowly reveals bits and pieces of Cora’s backstory and childhood, filling in the gaps of her motivation.
Because they’re delivered piecemeal, the story slowly unfolds, and it makes the show a nail-biter. In Episode 1, there are disturbing flashbacks to Cora’s mother holding a sick-looking newborn baby. For some reason, Cora doesn’t want to be alone with her mother, and there seems to be an underlying (sinister) religiosity — something hinted at in the story title.
It’s like true crime, a thriller and a mystery all rolled into one
Given the true-crime craze happening on TV at the moment, this element is hyped up in The Sinner. Det. Ambrose and the rest of the show’s forensic science characters analyze every single stab wound and movement, and just a warning: it is graphic.
The show is fast-moving and bounces from one locale to the next, so you’re not languishing in some police department for 20 minutes while cops discuss the case. Clues are dropped in every scene by passersby, witnesses and folks who’ve lived in the town for their whole lives, and as the viewer, you’re meant to put the pieces together.
The Sinner brings up questions of abuse, trauma, religion and love, and these questions are couched in an air of uncertainty, depicted perfectly by the foggy morning lake. There is an uneasiness in the town, and indeed, in Cora’s life. We take this journey of self-discovery right along with her, the mystery deepening with each episode.