Are you in the mood for voluntarily admitting more darkness into your life? That is the question. I do understand if you’re not. But, if you are, or even if you are vacillating, Sharp Objects should be your very first choice.

Adapted from Gillian “Gone Girl” Flynn’s twisty, twisted debut novel by Marti Noxon (most recently showrunner and executive producer of Dietland, although probably for ever most famous for her oversight of and writing for Buffy the Vampire Slayer), directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who gave Big Little Lies all its beauty and much of its torque, and starring multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, it is a pedigree production that manages to be even more than the sum of its parts.

Adams plays Camille Preaker, a reporter sent by her editor to cover the story of two girls – Ann Nash, murdered, and Natalie Keene, missing – in her home town of Wind Gap, Missouri. He seems to intend it as a gesture of compassion, an assignment that will give her the chance to exorcise some childhood demons that he intuits plague her.

Yes. Well. That really depends on the demons, and Camille’s are rapidly shown to be the kind just barely kept away by a massive alcohol dependency and – if the occasional glimpses of scars on her flesh are anything to go by – a history of self-harm.

Missouri is technically a midwestern state, but it is the last one before the south proper begins, and the sense that the madness of Dixieland refuses to be wholly contained by geopolitical border constructs grows. Bibulous eccentrics are found at roadsides. Chatty receptionists deal in non-sequiturs: purple ribbons festoon a memorial to Nash, one explains, despite the fact that black was her favourite colour. “Black just seemed too grim.”

Flashbacks to wanderings in the woods and teenage dens plastered in porn with boys cackling outside, suffocating dreams and the kind of shards of repressed memories that can pierce the thickest hangover abound, but do not yet coalesce into explanation. A further source of disequilibrium for Camille and for us all is Adora, her mother (Patricia Clarkson), a woman who clearly took one look at the fibrillating neuroses of Tennessee Williams’ various creations and thought: “Hold my cocktail.”

Henry Czerny and Patricia Clarkson

Henry Czerny and Patricia Clarkson Photograph: HBO

These more-or-less faintly hallucinatory scenes intertwine with Camille’s day-to-day efforts to build up a picture of the dead and missing. The natives are polite but, even to a fellow Gapper, unforthcoming. Like the receptionist and Adora, they want things to stay as nice as possible for as long as they can.

This becomes markedly harder when the body of Keene is discovered, but, as Adora insists, surely not impossible. She has had a lot of practice at keeping things nice, it turns out. One of Camille’s sisters died young, we learn (though not how), and her room is kept unchanged and immaculate. Her other sister, teenaged Amma (Eliza Scanlen), rollerskates in hotpants around town, but plays the dutiful daughter in pinafore dresses once back home. And whatever horrors lurk in Camille’s past and poison her dreams do not seem to have been submitted for open and supportive discussion at the kitchen table. “I’m having a very hard time, as you can imagine,” Camille’s mother says of the murders. When she hears her daughter is reporting on them, she decides: “I’ll just pretend you’re on a summer break.”

The story is really about the effects of repression and denial on an individual level and beyond – the monstrousness that can fester when we do not let in light or truth. The murder mystery is, so far, subordinate to that of Camille’s psyche, but the one is set fair to help disentangle the other as we move through the next seven parts of the series.

Adams is even better than we’ve seen her before, giving us an absolutely mesmerising portrait of a woman ground down from within by what she has suffered and with no energy left even to hope for salvation.

It is altogether mean, moody and magnificent and a fine addition to the gathering tide of female-led and female-driven dramas. Sharp Objects is part of a new breed of slickly produced but weighty vehicles for brilliant actors of beyond-starlet age that explore multiple plot strands, women’s stories and contemporary issues and prove, via overwhelming critical and popular acclaim, that talent survives beyond a lady’s 30th birthday. Seeing that on screen need not lead to mass retchings of fear and disgust.

This shouldn’t be noteworthy in 2018, of course, but it is, so let us note it. Progress is progress, whenever it comes.