Elisabeth Moss is after a killer who is defying all known laws of reality in Shining Girls, an unsettling Apple TV+ adaptation of Lauren Beukes’s science-fiction thriller
CAN a bee live without its wings? And what does it mean to survive against all odds? It is unlikely that the sadistic serial killer in Shining Girls, a new sci-fi thriller from Apple TV+, had considered these questions before mutilating a young girl’s pet bee in the series’ opening scene. What is clear, though, is that he sees the women he attacks as broken-winged, robbed of their perfection – and that this misconception will be his downfall.
Shining Girls stars Elisabeth Moss as Kirby Mazrachi, a filing clerk at a Chicago newspaper in 1992 who is still recovering from a horrific assault six years earlier. Her assailant was never caught, but when the body of a young woman is found with similar injuries, Kirby enlists strung-out reporter Dan Velazquez (Wagner Moura) to help her track down the murderer.
Their investigation is complicated by Kirby’s ever-shifting sense of reality: first, small things change, like whether she owns a cat or a dog. Then, in the blink of an eye, she finds she has been married for years and her rock-star mother is a born-again Christian.
As the bodies stack up, Kirby and Dan learn that the timeline of the killings can’t possibly make sense. While investigating the murder of a woman in 1972, they discover she had a locker key from 1992 in her possession. The more they uncover about the connections between the victims, the more impossible the killings seem.
Fans of The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes’s 2013 novel on which the show is based, should note that the series is considerably different. It largely eschews the grisliness of its source material, which devoted much of its narrative to the killer’s perspective. Instead, it has been transformed into a cerebral, mind-bending puzzle, with the murderer (Jamie Bell) and his methods left a cipher. All we know is that he is a clean-cut man with an almost omnipotent level of control over his victims – the “shining girls” – to the point where he seems to defy all known laws of reality.
For the most part, this restraint is wise: TV is hardly in need of more gruesome depictions of violence against women, after all. But losing the jagged mastery of the novel draws attention to the series’ deficiencies. The violence in the book was extreme but never gratuitous, designed to paint a picture of the noirish world Kirby inhabits. By contrast, aside from a few vivid montages, Shining Girls is often lacking in visual flair. And while many details of the other women’s murders have been expunged, so have the stories of their lives and dreams – only Kirby and a couple of other “shining girls” are fleshed out.
What can’t be faulted, though, are the performances of the show’s three leads. As Kirby, Moss really does shine. She is fragile and furious by turns, taking the increasingly large shifts in her reality in her stride. Moura, too, is hugely charismatic, making Dan’s aptitude for reporting clear even as his dependency on alcohol worsens.
And despite the dearth of information about his character, the killer avoids feeling one-note thanks to Bell. Shining Girls is careful to show the smaller-scale ways in which he harasses and demeans his victims before killing them. In this sense, he is a garden-variety misogynist, and Bell skilfully conveys how these small seeds could have grown and put him on a path to murder.
The first four episodes of Shining Girls set up a satisfying mystery, filled with unsettling twists that pull at the edges of reality. But it is the themes of trauma and renewal – at once more mundane and more remarkable than any sci-fi conceit could hope to be – that make the series worth watching. Far from a broken-winged bee, Kirby is so much more than a single reality could ever capture.
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