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Shining Girls review: Crimes of the past (and future)

Shining Girls may look and move like a traditional serial killer drama, but it’s far from just another straightforward mystery series. The new Apple TV+ original centers on Kirby Mazrachi (Elisabeth Moss), a woman who survived an attack by the show’s mysterious serial killer, as she sets out to finally solve the mystery behind the event that nearly killed her. The series, which is based on a 2013 novel of the same name by Lauren Beukes, is littered with the bodies of dead women, but by letting Moss’ Kirby lead its story, Shining Girls roots itself in a perspective that is often left out of most serial killer shows.

Kirby isn’t the only victim in Shining Girls who gets her turn in the spotlight. In addition to centering its narrative around Moss’ Kirby, the series also moves backward and forward in time, playing out events and murders that happen decades apart from each other — sometimes more than once. To make matters even more confusing, the series also makes it clear that every time its killer, Harper (Jamie Bell), cuts another woman’s life short, Kirby’s reality is irrevocably changed.

Each woman’s death results in the entire world around her changing, but the thing that makes Kirby different is that she’s the only person who seems to realize it every time it happens. Much of Shining Girls is, consequently, about Kirby’s search to not only uncover the reason for why her life keeps changing, but also why she was targeted and assaulted in the first place.

Mystery before clarity

Elisabeth Moss lies on a bed in Shining Girls.
Apple TV+, 2022

If that all sounds a bit mysterious, that’s because it is. Make no mistake: There’s a sci-fi story at the center of Shining Girls, but the series is in no rush to reveal the specifics of it. Instead, the show opts in its early episodes to fully inhabit the fractured, disoriented perspective of Moss’ Kirby, and it often chooses to explain key pieces of its mystery only when Kirby figures them out herself. For some viewers, that may make the first few episodes of Shining Girls too frustrating to stick with.

To the show’s credit, Shining Girls does make several things clear very early on in its premiere. The first episode’s eerie opening scene, for instance, makes it obvious that Bell’s Harper is The Bad Guy of its story, and the scenes that follow efficiently set Moss’ Kirby up as a woman that he’s assaulted in the past (or is it the future? Sometimes, it’s hard to tell in Shining Girls). Those choices make the central conflict of Shining Girls clear, which allows for the show’s subsequent episodes to take their time revealing the specific details of Harper’s crimes.

Shining Girls doesn’t waste much time before giving Kirby a partner to help her with her crusade. In this case, that partner is Dan Velasquez (Wagner Moura), a crime reporter at the same newspaper where Kirby works as an archivist. When the show begins, Dan’s once-great career has been tarnished by his own alcoholic tendencies, but when a case he stumbles upon catches Kirby’s eye, the two partner up to investigate the mysterious murder of a young woman together.

Cat and mouse

Elisabeth Moss sits next to Wagner Moura in Shining Girls.
Apple TV+, 2022

Kirby and Dan’s scenes together supply Shining Girls with many of its best moments, and Moura and Moss make for a truly memorable screen duo. Both actors are asked to play characters who are messy in their own unique and distinct ways, but the empathy that Kirby and Dan feel toward each other makes their relationship immediately captivating to watch. In several instances, the two even end up creating a dynamic similar to the one shared by Robert Downey Jr.’s Paul Avery and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith in David Fincher’s 2007 true-crime masterpiece, Zodiac.

The series’ connections to investigative films like Zodiac and All the President’s Men don’t end with its story though. Shining Girls also looks a whole lot like a David Fincher film at certain points. In fact, the series even adopts the same grimy, lowlight aesthetic present in many of Fincher’s films, and applies it to a sci-fi/murder-mystery story that feels deeply indebted to the work of Stephen King. Visually, director Michelle MacLaren splits the difference between those two reference points, and her ability to quickly ratchet up tension on-screen is put to good use in Shining Girls’ debut installments.

MacLaren fills the series’ first two episodes with plenty of dread-inducing moments, including one memorable shot in Shining Girls’ premiere that has Bell’s Harper stand up at the same time as an entire auditorium’s worth of people. MacLaren places Harper in the middle of the frame and has everyone else look in different directions than him, a detail that makes his unwavering focus on a woman sitting a few rows down from him unnervingly apparent. The shot is one of many in Shining Girls that have the power to make your stomach drop.

A worthwhile journey

Jamie Bell sits alone in an auditorium in Shining Girls.
Apple TV+, 2022

Throughout Shining Girls’ eight episodes, Bell plays Harper as an old-fashioned gentleman whose soft voice and boyish smirk just barely mask his nefarious intentions. He’s a mysterious figure when he’s first introduced in the show, but he doesn’t grow any less intimidating once more is revealed about him. As a matter of fact, the opposite is true, and in a nice change of pace, Shining Girls manages to explain Harper’s origins without ever falling into the “misunderstood villain” trap that so many movies and films have in the past.

He’s a character who feels like he could have been pulled straight out of a Stephen King story, but the same can be said for much of Shining Girls. The show imbues its sci-fi story with the same kind of bitter, murderous edge that is present in so many of King’s genre tales, and Shining Girls occasionally makes some of the same illogical jumps that King is known for making in his books. Additionally, by the time everything is said and done, Shining Girls never totally explains or lays out the answers to its various mysteries, which makes understanding some of its final sci-fi twists more difficult than it should be.

But Shining Girls gets more right than wrong. The series is a moody and effective piece of genre storytelling that is anchored by two performances from Moss and Moura that are among the best of the year so far. The show’s bittersweet denouement, meanwhile, not only makes up for some of the messiness of its later episodes, but also makes Shining Girls’ ideas about power and responsibility unavoidably, heartbreakingly clear.

The first three episodes of Shining Girls premiere Friday, April 29 on Apple TV+. Digital Trends was given access to all eight of the show’s episodes.

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