A film review by Craig J. Koban February 28, 2023


2023, R, 116 mins.

Julianne Moore as Madeline Phillips   /  Sebastian Stan as Max  /  Justice Smith as Tom  /  Briana Middleton as Sandra  /  John Lithgow as Richard Hobbes  /  Darren Goldstein as Pat Braddock  /  Phillip Johnson Richardson as Det. Collins  /  Kerry Flanagan as Larusso  /  David Pittu as David (Lawyer)  /  Quincy Dunn-Baker as William Tyler  /  Lucy Taylor as Valaria

Directed by Benjamin Caron  /  Written by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka




There's a telling moment in the new thriller SHARPER that features one character informing another "If you're going to steal...steal a lot." 

The film - playing now on Apple TV+ after a short theatrical engagement - tells a labyrinthine tale of a group of tightly connected people in The Big Apple royally screwing each other over - in one form or another - to gain control of one man's vast fortune.  It all sounds like pretty garden variety con artist fiction, not to mention that grifter stories of the have nots trying to rob the haves are as old as the genre.  What separates British director Benjamin Caron's film, though, is that it employs some clever time and character perspective shifting vignettes that move in and out of chronological order to great a strong sense of forward momentum (that, and it engages audiences to want to see this film through from one salacious detail and double cross to the next).  Even if the finale of SHARPER feels somewhat sketchy in terms of logic and its commentary on extreme wealth, privilege, and trust forged and then broken seems somewhat half baked, there's no denying that Caron has made a finely crafted and twisted chronicle of psychological one-upmanship.   Plus, the performances from the strongly assembled cast helps even out some of the film's shortcomings. 

SHARPER is executed in puzzle box fashion, which requires audiences to pay relatively close attention to the fine details and look back and re-evaluate key character dynamics and power struggles that initially appear one way, but then are later flipped upside down.  The film opens simply enough by introducing us to Tom (Justice Smith), who's a quiet and reserved vintage bookstore owner overseeing the kind of operation that appears to have next to no customers on any random business day.  On one fateful afternoon a gorgeous young woman comes through his doors in Sandra (Briana Middleton), who through her idle chit-chat with the introverted Tom reveals that she's a NYU student looking to purchase some books, but ends up not having enough money to secure them.  Tom seems fairly smitten with Sandra from the get-go, so he agrees to give her the books for re-payment later.  He also awkwardly asks her out for a date, which she politely declines, leaving Tom feeling dejected.  When he closes up shop later that night he's surprised when Sandra shows back up and decides to take him up on his offer.  Their early flirtatious interplay gives way to a full-blown romantic relationship, during which time they learn intimate details of one another, like the fact that Tom is the son of a rich financial mogul, Richard (John Lithgow), who has given him his store and dishes out money to him when needed.  She reveals to him that she has a cash strapped brother that's spiraling out of control and desperately needs to pay off a debt in the hundreds of thousands. 

Tom agrees to give her the money (which he has in a trust), and after much debate she begrudgingly agrees to take it.   

Then...she disappears without a trace. 



It's here when Brian Gatewood's and Alessandro Tanaka's sinewy screenplay starts to get interesting.  Delving too much into what happens next in the film might be tiptoeing into spoiler territory, but all I'll say from this point is that Caron's film then gets broken down into non-linear character focused chapters that re-introduce and introduce us to various old and new characters respectively, detailing who they really are and their motivations in the larger scheme of things.  In the first one we meet Max (Sebastian Stan), who was once a drug and alcohol addict that has now become a well oiled conman with direct ties to Tom and Sandra's introductory vignette.  He's the son of Madeline (Julianne Moore), who desperately wants to help her child in any way she can, which causes a lot of tension in her budding relationship with - wait a minute! - Tom's father, who sees no positives to be gained in allowing his future-wife-to-be's son into their lives, so he attempts to pay Max off handsomely to leave them alone and never come back.  This segues into yet another character focused vignette, this time on Madeline herself, and it's at this vantage point when the already convoluted narrative dives into more unnerving twists about previous established relationships and zones of trust.  When Madeline finally marries Richard and then he abruptly passes away, his vast fortune is up for grabs, which propels Tom back into the proceedings, who has some serious trust issues not only because of his past with Sandra, but also because of his new stepmom in Madeline, whom he suspects may or may not be fully who she says she is. 

Caron is a BAFTA winning TV and film director (who recently won an Emma as one of the producers of THE CROWN and has directed episodes of the STAR WARS universe centered ANDOR for Disney+), and he certainly seems equal to the challenge here of imbuing SHARPER with solid pacing, a moody sense of style, and some thanklessly dexterous performances by his cast that goes well and above the call of duty with this material.  As mentioned, part of the pleasure of watching the film unfold is how it moves back and forth and in and out of time from one con after another until we finally arrive at the obligatory "big climatic" game of deception in the last act perpetrated by one of the characters against everyone else.  The sinful allure of SHARPER is in how it lays out multiple betrayals and an endless number of double and triple crosses, and in the process of this we start to question just about everyone's nobility and honesty the longer the film progresses.  There are so many tantalizing possibilities that the story could lead us down, which effectively keeps viewers mostly off balance and alert throughout.  From the onset of SHARPER's first vignette and the introduction of one temporal hopping chapter to the next (that poses more juicy details about each of these main players in question that makes us reflect on what occurred in the last vignette) it's clear that Caron is displaying great relish in owning up to and expanding upon genre troupes.  Sometimes the film can take a dive into some incredulous waters, but the confidence that Caron and his actors display with the underlining material makes for an endlessly compelling watch. 

And as for this crackerjack cast?  There's really not a false beat from any of them here, with Smith's textured performance as his soft spoken bookworm turned jaded lover starting off the film well, which gives way to Middleton's equally layered turn as Sandra, whom exudes an easy-going chemistry with Smith and shows a keen ability to turn on a dime and play her character with completely different strokes when called upon to do so by the mechanizations of the plot.  I really enjoyed Stan's take on the lecherous snake that is Max, who's such a dirty bird and so seedy that he becomes a blank emotional void when it comes to royally screwing over people out of their livelihoods (Stan also seems like one of the few MCU actors that's systematically trying to move away from that universe by taking on a series of far less than squeaky clean roles as of late).  Moore is reliably on point as Madeline, a dicey character that gets dissected and reconstituted multiple times over in the story, which allows for the veteran actress to truly sink her teeth into her multiple problematic layers.  He's not in it a lot, but even Lithgow himself makes a sizeable impression within the parameters of a few key scenes as his equally proud and smug one per center; you both feel sorry for him...and you don't in equal measure. 

Complimenting SHARPER's treasure trove of acting riches is its overall look, with cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen lensing the film with an ominous desaturated sheen that visually reflects the amoral nature of the entire story and imparts each chapter with its own unique aesthetic identity and sense of atmosphere.  SHARPER has so damn much good going for it as a perversely enjoyable grifter thriller that it becomes a bit of an annoyance when Caron and company kind of careen their film into a corner and seem a bit reticent as to how they really want to the end this ever escalating con game.  The final act con itself isn't as well executed as the multiple ones that have lead into it, not to mention that many aspects of it don't pass internal logic smell tests either.  There's a point when something dire happens to one character and you know - you just know! - that this is part of a larger scheme than it is part of any sense of dreadful finality.  I also wished that SHARPER was a bit sharper in tackling ideas about wealth, privilege, and how the pursuit of money and power warps just about any mind to do unthinkable things.  There's no doubt that this film fizzles out a bit as it builds towards an ending, but I did admire how it legitimately tried (and succeeded) in most aspects of keeping ahead of even sharp eyed and perceptive audience members.  And this is a beautiful looking sleazy movie filled with actors unafraid of committing themselves to the sordid nature of the whole enterprise.  SHARPER doesn't reinvent the wheel as far as con thrillers go, but it definitely doesn't lazily spin its genre wheels either. 

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