The Sinner stars Jessica Biel as a woman who commits a violent crime on a public beach. No one understands why she did it, including the woman herself.
Biel stars as Cora Tannetti. She’s the mother of a young boy. She’s married to Mason (Christopher Abbott). Cora and Mason both work in Mason’s father’s heating and air conditioning shop. They live in the house next door to Mason’s parents, where their young son spends his day. The arrangement feels claustrophobic to Cora and she plans for her family to get away for the day at the lake.
Cora, Mason and their son arrange a blanket on the sand. They are placidly sitting in the sun, Cora is slicing a pear for her son. The couple in front of them show a lot of affection in public, the man’s hands are all over the bikini clad woman. The woman puts on a song the man’s college band recorded.
Cora jumps up and stabs the man 7 times. She tells the woman, “you’re safe now.”
When arrested she confesses immediately. She can’t provide a reason for what she did. She pleads guilty.
It’s almost as if she can finally relax when she’s in jail. She doesn’t have to deal with real life. Being locked up sounds like a restful idea to her.
The detectives Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) and Dan Leroy (Dohn Norwood) get the case. Harry grabs on to the question of “Why” and won’t let go. Even after Cora is arraigned, sentenced, and in jail, he somehow manages to get away with continuing to investigate the “why.” He uses police resources, police psychologists, and his own time to look into Cora’s past and look for a motive.
Through flashbacks, hypnosis sessions, and many interrogation sessions, we slowly see into Cora’s life. Her childhood was spent with a religiously insane mother (Enid Graham), a cheating father (C.J. Wilson), and a sister who was dying. Cora was blamed and shamed for her sister Phoebe’s (played by Nadia Alexander at age 19) every setback.
At age 23, Cora met up in a bar with J.D. (Jacob Pitts) and Maddie (Danielle Burgess). They took her to an unknown location. She doesn’t recall what happened then or for months afterwards. Her few broken memories are of horrific things. The music that set her off at the lake plays a part in her memories.
Harry plays that music as he questions her on one occasion. She attacks him and hits him seven times in the exact same places she stabbed the man at the lake. As officers drag her off him, she growls, “I’ll kill you.”
Once she’s back to her normal self, she continues to cooperate with Harry. She knows he’s the only person trying to help her. Her husband Mason is running around causing problems. He’s more interested in self-justification than in helping his wife, but he grows on you.
In episode 7 we finally see what actually happened (well, almost all of it). It is surprising in several ways. As with any good mystery, the truth is not in keeping with many of the clues. Those were often misdirections faults in Cora’s memory.
Another big plot surprise comes in the final episode.
Jessica Biel got Best Actress in a Limited Series Emmy nomination for her performance. It is well deserved. Her performance is gripping. She’s closed off, confused, and frightened by her own past. Jessica Biel’s muted, tightly wound Cora is absolutely real.
We get to know Harry as he investigates. He’s trying to make his marriage to his wife (Kathryn Erbe) work. Yet he often visits Sharon (Meredith Holzman) who punishes him and humiliates him as part of their relationship. I sometimes thought perhaps the sinner in the title was Harry, not Cora.
You can see all of season 1 now on Netflix. It’s a well written mystery that will keep you interested. It was based on a book by Petra Hammesfahr. There were some logic gaps in the plot that I’m sure many mystery buffs will notice, but nothing that ruined the story. Cora’s troubled and abused past was the most compelling part of The Sinner. It affected her and all her relationships.
The Sinner is a USA network production. Season 1 was meant to be a limited series of 8 episodes. Instead there was another season, but about a different crime. The second season again starred Bill Pullman as Harry Ambrose. Carrie Coon joined the cast in season 2. It also aired on USA. Jessica Biel, who is executive producer of the series, continued that work behind the camera in season 2.
It’s so ironic. Jessica Biel found and produced an intriguing mystery series with a intense and complex part for herself. It became such a success it continued. But with the male lead carrying it forward.
Note: This post was published earlier. It has been revised, updated, and republished due to recurring interest in The Sinner.
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7 responses to “Review: The Sinner, season 1”
Jessica Biel is a terrific actor. Thanks for highlighting this film—sounds like a winner!
Looks interesting. Have to find it somewhere, because sadly it´s not on Netflix in Finland. Thou, if I am lucky our local network Yle will pick it up sooner or later. They usually do with these kind of mystery stories. Like Top of The Lake and it´s second part China Girl. Yeah, so typical, what you said in end. But at least she still have the executing producers job thou. Good reed, thanks!
Thanks for reading. Hope you get a chance to see it.
Watching it in 2021 I’m struck by the white privilege that is the core of the story. It wasn’t too long after the murder that I found myself thinking “Would this be happening if this was a black woman, and not a Joni Mitchell doppelgänger? Black women get shot in their own homes because the cops had outdated information, yet here we have a pretty white woman who kills a man on a crowded beach, surrounded by witnesses, and she confesses, and the cops bend over backwards to try to free her from the consequences. That would NOT happen with a black woman, the black man probably would be dead before the story started. Say what we might (or some of us anyway) this story, this show, makes it clear: We still don’t get it. Cops shouldn’t be working so hard to free a murderer, and they wouldn’t, if she wasn’t a pretty white woman.
A bit of an overgeneralization, this movie is not addressing racial issues it’s clearly a mystery focusing on mental health problems. So, why is there a need to turn this into a rant about racism? That is like going grocery shopping in a clothing store.
I read the remarks as an honest reflection on the state of society in this day and age and not as a rant. Everything is connected.